The Beauty of Ivory

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The Beauty of Ivory

Ivory! The name conjures up images of beautiful objets d’art and connotations of fine craftsmanship, style, luxury, value and exclusivity.


Mankind’s connection with ivory is ancient. The Cro-Magnons of the Pleistocene era, who lived some 40,000 to 10,000 years ago, used ivory for carving. Ivory was also used by the Egyptians around 2600 B.C. and Europeans between the 12th and 14th centuries.

Ivory is popularly associated with elephant tusks, but is also derived from the tusks and teeth of several animals like the hippopotamus, wild boar, mammoth, warthog, hornbill, narwhal, sperm whale and walrus. Ivory is the equivalent of dentine in human teeth, the calcified tissue lying beneath the enamel. Among these animals, the dentine mass in their large teeth and tusks is considerably more than what we have.

As a carving material that is hard, yet lighter than metal or stone, ivory has always been in high demand. Through history, men have spared no effort to acquire it, either by excavating mammoths or decimating elephant populations. Ivory is primarily traded as decorative and religious objects, musical instruments and name seals.

Tooth and tusk ivory offers great versatility for carving. Tusks can be retained in their original shape and carved superficially. Ivory is used in decorative inlay work as well as figurines, carved boxes, serviette holders and jewellery. The list of items is endless. With the arrival of plastics in the 1920s and increasing awareness of the cruelty involved to animals in harvesting ivory, its use has declined.

Antique ivory objects however, are highly valued as collectibles. Naturally, there’s also a thriving market in fakes.

How can one identify authentic ivory? A cross-section of mammoth or elephant ivory will reveal distinctively cross-hatched patterns called Schreger lines. But even these can be faked on plastic by a technique called scrimshawing! One simple way to make sure is to heat a pin and poke the object. If it’s genuine ivory, the pin will leave just a tiny mark and the whiff of burnt tooth. Plastic though, will give off a typically acrid smell and have a hole.

Every type of ivory has its unique characteristics. You may be able to identify one with just a hand lens but to be really sure, it’s best to get it certified by a laboratory.

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