The History of Ivory - The Ideal Art Material


A hard, creamy substance that looks like a bone, ivory comes from the teeth of animals such as elephants, walrus, and mammoths. The teeth of most animals, in fact, have ivory. The teeth, however, is referred to as the dentin. Ivory, on the other hand, refers to the material or the product used in commerce or trading. It is made up of water, organic matter, and calcium phosphate. True ivory, when exposed to abrupt temperature fluctuations, may give in to cracking. Today, ivory is popular as a material for making billiard balls and piano keys, as well as smaller objects such as jewelry, pins, and buttons. Ivory has long been used for many purposes, dating back on the ancient times. Read on the history of ivory that follows and you will appreciate the importance of this valuable substance.

In the early times, people in Babylonia, Cyprus, Egypt, Crete, and Assyria used ivory to create ornamental objects. Romans and Greeks also used ivory extensively in the prehistoric times. In the Renaissance period, ivory was a common material for making statuettes, inlay work, caskets, and crucifixes. In the 1600s, ivory started to be traded between countries. However, the diminishing population of elephants and the discovery of alternatives to ivory (e.g. vegetable ivory, plastic, synthetic ivory, etc.) led to the weakened ivory trade in the middle of the 20th century. That doesnt stop, though, the high demand for ivory and ivory trades done illegally. A global ban on ivory trade was implemented in 1990, an action which was intended to thwart the near extinction of elephants and other animals whose tusks are used as sources of ivory.

For many years, ivory has been used worldwide for inlay work on furniture and smaller objects such as chess pieces, bracelets, earrings, necklaces, letter openers, and knife handles. In China, India, and Japan, ivory products such as ornamental items, fans, and carved statuettes are created by many artisans. Ivory is touted as a great material for decorative art because it is tough and fine-grained. It is also easy to carve and dye. All these properties make ivory the traditional art material in many cultures. These ivory artworks last long enough to show the early civilization wherein they were made.

The term ivory, which has been used for nearly 1,000 years, comes from a number of African words that mean elephant. This fact signifies the use of elephants as the main source of ivory in almost every part of the world. In particular, elephant tusks are the common source of ivory in Europe, Japan, China, and India. Whales and walruses are the primary ivory sources in North America. Imitation ivories such as vegetable ivory, plastics, and synthetic ivory are becoming more and more popular these days as cheaper substitutes for real ivory.

The long history of ivory shows the resourcefulness and creativity of world civilizations, both old and new. Ivory is truly a precious substance that will continue to be used for a wide variety of purposes.


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