Where Can You Find Ivory?: Traditional and Alternative Sources of Ivory


When people talk about sources of ivory, the first (and sometimes the only) thing that comes to mind is elephant tusk. While it is true that most of the ivory used in making jewelry comes from elephant tusks, other ivory sources are being explored and used as well. In fact, ivory comes from a myriad of sources, which fall into two main groups: genuine ivory and imitation ivory.

Genuine Ivory

Elephants - The upper incisors or tusks of African and Indian elephants, as well as mastodons and mammoths, are used as materials for creating ivory products. The tusks of these animals are not coated with enamel, unlike human teeth. Instead of enamel, their tusks are covered with a cementum layer, which is often called the rind or the bark. This layer sometimes remains on a finished ivory piece. The tusk mostly consists of dentin, a dense and hard substance, and collagen.

Walruses - The upper canines of walruses are also a good source of ivory. Measuring more than 2 feet long, walrus ivory has an inner dentin layer that develops while the upper canine grows. This dentin layer creates a marbled effect on worked ivory pieces. Walrus ivory is mainly used to make small objects.

Sperm whales - Ivory from sperm whales are often mistaken for walrus ivory, simply because both have dual unique layers. The difference lies in the size of the inner layerwalrus ivorys inner layer is smaller than the sperm whale ivory. Also, the dentin of the sperm whale consists of yellow globules within the marble-patterned area.

Hippopotami - A popular ivory source, hippopotamus ivory comes from the incisors and lower canines of hippos. Hippopotamus ivory is coated with thick enamel like human teeth. Compared to elephant ivory, hippo ivory has a finer grain structure and is more difficult to carve because it is much denser.

Imitation Ivory

Faux ivory - Synthetic forms of ivory include celluloid and casein, and they are known in different names such as ivoride, ivorine, and genuine French ivory. Casein is a calcium salt and protein, while celluloid is regarded as the best alternative to ivory. Even if they are faux ivories, they can be made with the same patterns as genuine ivory.

Vegetable ivory - This imitation ivory comes from the seed of a palm plant in South America. Instead of collagen, vegetable ivory is composed of 100 percent cellulose. The seeds, which are called, Tagua, closely resemble the egg of a small hen in terms of shape and size. Like genuine ivory, vegetable ivory is hard, smooth, quickly absorbs dyes, and has a good polish. However, vegetable ivory is cheaper than the real ones. Vegetable ivory is a commonly used material for small objects such as buttons and dice.

Plastic - Most sources of ivory imitations these days are made through an array of plastic materials. Good imitations of ivory using plastic can be determined through using a hot pin or chemical tests.


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