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Friday Slide Show: Meerschaum Share This on LinkedIn   Tweet This   Forward This

10 July 2020

As René Magritte said of his 1929 painting The Treachery of Images, "Leci n'est pas un pipe." And this photo is not a pipe any more than his painting of a pipe was a pipe.

Some people find Magritte's observation amusing. At least the first time you hear it.

Our pipe, unlike his briar on a warm background, is meerschaum floating on white. Meerschaum (sea foam in German) is sepiolite, a soft clay-like material whose porous nature draws moisture and tar into itself providing a cool and dry smoke.

Pipes made of meerschaum were an upgrade over the clay pipes of the 18th century. Briar, which absorbs heat better and is more durable, overtook them both, although hybrids of briar with meerschaum bowls tried to produce the best of both worlds.

It's simple to say Magritte's picture was a painting and ours is a photograph. But too simple.

White when new, they gradually darken with use. You may have seen meerschaum pipes with elaborate carvings, typically faces.

This little jewel was owned by our great uncle who emigrated to America from Italy in 1906 as a young boy (distraught at having to leave his pet goat). We don't know when he acquired it but it could be around 100 years old now.

Smoking, it's been suggested, is relaxing. We don't smoke but we find it calming to look at things that are older than us.

And since this is not a pipe, there's no danger of it getting into the hands of anyone who might smoke it.

So what is it then?

It's simple to say Magritte's picture was a painting and ours is a photograph. But too simple. Ours is a series. A study of shapes in color.

This meerschaum is not an intricate carving. It's a polished bowl with the scratches of a long life marked on it as it ends in a sterling silver band where it meets the amber mouthpiece.

We find it uncommonly beautiful not simply for its shape but its imperfections and longevity. They are conceptually opposed. Imperfections threaten longevity.

And so, imperfect as we are, we look longingly at things that have endured.

Ah, the treachery of images.

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