M.C. asks "What is this?" in the subject line of her email. To which I respond, after seeing a photo of the object: "What's the classic image of Audrey Hepburn seen on the movie poster for Breakfast at Tiffany's? The answer: Holly Golightly with a long cigarette holder at the corner of her luscious lips, her cat perched on her slender shoulder, capped by that distinctive beehive hairdo with tiara. M.C., you have a small, boxed, early 20th century meerschaum cigarette holder, as elegant as the device in Holly Golightly's mouth.
The little piece is decorated with a relief of a carved cross-legged Turkish imp. The imp is dressed in pantaloons and a high black turban. Why a Turkish figure? Turkish tobacco produced the greatest tasting cigarettes made in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Historically, the best tobacco was grown in Turkey, Greece, Bulgaria, Lebanon and Macedonia, all in whole or part contained in the Ottoman Empire. Oriental tobacco is the sun-cured, aromatic, small-leafed Nicotiana tabacum. Second in smoking paraphernalia history only to the 1580 entrance of tobacco to the island of Cuba, tobacco arrived in Turkey just a short time later by European merchants in the late 16th century. A Turkish imp is an appropriate figure to grace M.C.'s early 20th century cigarette holder.
The figure also is indicative of a trend in the 1920s for Orientalism, all things exotic and sinuous. The colors, black and white, are also associated with the 1920s: think Pierrot and Pierrette, black-and-white glamour photos and movies, and the high-contrast interior designs we think of in that era called Art Deco. Females were the icons of style, as opposed to the previous era where patriarchal bearded statesmen occupied front covers of printed media. To be a vixen was celebrated!
When smoked, this little holder heats up and an interesting thing will happen. The color of the meerschaum may change from yellow to orange to red and amber where it is the thinnest. However, the thicker Turkish imp stilling pretty on the pipe stem will remain white. This playfulness in material culture is also indicative of the Art Deco period. Carved Turkish meerschaum pipes and holders were made from Turkish meerschaum harvested on Turkish shores for pipe-carving factories in Vienna. What's meerschaum?
Meerschaum, German for "foam of the sea," is found floating on the Black Sea, actually as little bubbles of the mineral sepiolite. When carved into a pipe, the mineral's porous composition draws moisture and tobacco tar into itself. This discovery made the clay pipe almost obsolete. Although a smoker had to meticulously clean the little pipe, it provided a sweeter smoke than a direct draw from a 19th century unfiltered cigarette, and allowed for a more upscale and pleasant appearance than a wooden or clay pipe.
My guess is that this holder was owned by a woman in the 1920s, indicating a change in the perception and plenitude of female smokers. In the 19th century, only Spanish lower-class women and Japanese prostitutes were the infamous female smokers of cigarettes. But mass production in the late 19th century drove cigarettes to the mouths of all women — with the help of the invention of the safety match. Not only did women smoke, but they carried little sterling match safes. By the 1920s, female smokers increased when perceptive marketing associated the liberalization of women's rolls with smoking. Cigarette holders for females began to be crafted in gold, silver and ivory, often elegantly bejeweled or carved. The 1930s Hollywood glamour photography emphasized the sensuality of female cigarette smokers, often pictured with elegant cigarette holders.
Today, such smoking collectibles are becoming increasingly valuable because of the decline in the manufacture of smoking materials. Rarity and obsolescence increases value. In today's antique market, we see more meerschaum pipes than elegant cigarette holders, especially cigarette holders in such perfect condition as M.C.'s, and hers is in its original little leather box to boot.
Smoking is today a discouraged forbidden pleasure — and retro. Enter the hipster trend of pipe smoking as an explanation of the increasing value of pipes. Bearded hipsters are in part pipe lovers, such that pipes are said to be "beard inspired."
The value of M.C.'s cigarette holder is $500, and falls into the collectible class "tobacciana."
Certified appraiser for estates, inheritances and trusts.
Dr. Elizabeth Stewart's column appears every week in the Salon & Style section of the Santa Barbara News Press. Email her your questions and high-resolution photos at ElizabethAppraisals @ gmail.com
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