Looking into the Beauty and Uses of Ivory

Due to near-extinction of elephants, ivory trade is banned globally since 1989 through listing of elephants on Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).

The steep increase of illegal ivory trade has continued until today because of the rising demand in East Asia and the mass production of ivory carvings. This is because ivory carving has been an artistic tradition in Eastern countries such as Myanmar and Thailand. But what is ivory exactly and why it has been an important part of human history?

Ivory is obtained from the elephants tusks or its upper incisors. It is hard and smooth substance mainly consists of dentin. The word came from Ancient Egyptian abu that means elephant. While the word is commonly associated to the tusks of elephants, it was expanded to include the tusks and teeth of other animals such as walruses, hippopotamuses, and whales. Popular terms also include Genuine French Ivory and Indian Ivory which are imitation ivory.

A main component of ivory, dentin is one of the four main components of teeth and tusks. It is largely made up of mineralized connective tissue and collagen. Both teeth and tusks are almost the same, even in origin. Teeth are used for food chewing, whereas tusks are modified teeth projecting beyond the lips. Elephant tusks are formed with a partial cap of enamel that eventually wears away, leaving the dentin exposed.

The ivory of animals differs in several aspects. The African elephant ivory differ from the Asian ones. The former is harder with a translucent yellow appearance. The former is softer with an opaque white appearance.

The beauty and smoothness of an elephant ivory lie on the Lines of Retzius or Lines of Schregar. These are visible in cross section which appears to be intersecting lines with a diamond shape between them. An elephant ivory is easily carved and durable. Unlike elephant ivory, the hippopotamus ivory is denser and harder to carve. The Walrus ivory has a primary and secondary dentin layer with the latter having a marbled facade.

Hence, ivory is used in making high valuable works of art, valuable religious items, and ornamented boxes For example, the Chinese valued ivory for both art and utilitarian objects such as images of Buddhist and Taoist deities and opium pipes.

Ivory carvings also flourished in other Asian countries like Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia. These countries traditionally harvested ivory from domesticated elephants to make containers and carved into elaborate seals for government use.

Today, synthetic substitutes for ivory were developed to meet the continuing demand of it and address the rapid decline of elephant population. Examples of ivory imitation are materials made from cellulose nitrate, hard nutalso called vegetable ivory, and casein, which is a phosphoprotein that composes nearly 80 percent of proteins in milk and cheese. The differences between the two are the lack of irregular canal lines and that natural ivory fluoresce a bright blue under the sun while synthetic a dull blue.

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