What is Ivory?
Ivory is formed from dentine and constitutes the bulk of the teeth and tusks of animals. The word "ivory" was traditionally applied to the tusks of elephants; the word is ultimately from Ancient Egyptian âb, âbu "elephant". "True" ivory comes from elephants and mammoth; however, the term is generally applied to the tusks of other mammals, and some synthetics. Chemically, ivory is similar to bone and antler, and comprises a collagen matrix with a mineral component. Unlike bone, ivory has no blood vessel system, and is therefore more dense. The most commonly found ivories in North America come from elephant, walrus, sperm whale, and hornbill.
Different Kinds of Ivory
It is possible to tell these ivories apart, as they are structurally different. This category includes ivory from both Indian and African elephants, as well as ivory from mammoths and mastodon. The tusks, or upper incisors, of these animals are used. They can have a cross section of up to 20cm (8"), and be up to 2.5m (almost 3 yards) long. They are oval in cross section, and are made up of a hard, dense tissue called dentin, which is made up of 70% inorganic material, and 30% collagen.
How to Tell Real Ivory from Imitations
Imitations are usually made from resins. Sometimes these resins will be blended with the remnants of ivory or bone carvings ground up to a fine powder. There is also "french ivory", "celluloid", or "ivrine". This type of "man made" material looks like ivory with very nice grain. However, the grain is very wide and consistent (too consistent). This material was used mostly for dresser accessories such as brushes, combs, change boxes, letter openers, page turners, etc. Resin items will not have the weight of ivory. Ivory has a very heavy specific gravity compared to most materials.
Looking for "ivory grain" is not always dependable to tell "real ivory". Some ivories have little grain. There is Western Africa Ivory and Eastern Africa Ivory. The ivory from the eastern side of Africa is referred to as "soft ivory" which is duller and contains more moisture and stands changes in temperature better. The ivory from the western part of Africa is referred to as "hard ivory" which is glassy and translucent. The Japanese used a lot of the western ivory for their okimonos. Elephant ivory does not always have obvious grain. In many cases, ivory graining varies depend on how the ivory was cut and which section of the tusk it comes from. The tusk tip is most valued since large part of the tusk is acutally hollow. The tusk tip is more suitable for carving as it is solid, and the tip usually displays the most beautiful cross-hataching grainings.
Bone has tiny little channels where the blood vessels and nerves resided. You can often see these, either straight in (on the backside) looking like little pockmarks, or as lines at an angle almost perpendicular, ie "dots and dashes". It can be easy to see, but also sometimes is not apparent on the surface, however, if you put a light behind it (lay it on your scanner) you should detect the short little lines of the channels.
Owing to the rapid decline in the populations of the animals that produce it, the importation and sale of ivory in many countries is banned or severely restricted. Much of the decline in population is due to poachers during and before the 1980s. Since the worldwide ivory trade ban in 1989 there have been ups and downs in elephant populations, and ivory trade as bans have been placed and lifted. Many African countries including Zimbabwe, Namibia and Botswana claim that ivory trade is necessary—both to stimulate their economies and reduce elephant populations which are allegedly harming the environment. A 1999 study done by Oxford University found that less than one percent of the five-hundred million US dollars ivory sales generated ever reach Africans; most of it goes to middlemen and vendors. However, in 2002 the United Nations partially lifted the ban on ivory trade, allowing a few countries to export certain amounts of ivory. The effectiveness of the policy is in question, in light of the study preceding the ban, and an updated study would be needed to evaluate the current state of the ivory trade.
In 2007 eBay, under pressure from the International Fund for Animal Welfare, made the decision to ban all international sales of elephant ivory products. The IFAW found that up to 90% of the elephant ivory transactions on Ebay violated their own wildlife policies and could potentially be illegal. In October, 2008, eBay expanded the ban, disallowing any sales of ivory on eBay starting in 2009.