Thursday, December 20, 2012



Ivory. It's been used centuries for carvings, objects of art, jewelry, inlay on furniture, miniature paintings, boxes, the list is long. By definition, "The teeth and tusks of animals" or dentine. I'm specifically referring to elephant and walrus tusk. Whales tooth for Scrimshaw is usually just call "Ivory whale's tooth". (go figure)

This is for those who can't tell the difference between ivory, bone, and plastic. It's great when you're buying from someone who can't identify ivory, unless it's plastic priced like ivory. I still see it all the time "Real ivory carving" that is actually made from bone.

Elephant Ivory.

Can grow up to 8 feet long. Asian and African variety sometimes sold in tusk form all the way down to small rosette motif earrings. This is the easiest to spot due to the distinct cross hatching that is nearly impossible to reproduce. The overall appearance of antique ivory should have a warm caramel color over a light creamy yellow to yellow white. Cool to the touch and dense. Heavy in hand. The cross hatching diamond pattern should be visible on any carved piece. African ivory has darker lines. Asian ivory has the same pattern with lighter colored almost beige off white lines. The obvious subject matter, dragons, immortals, Netsukes, etc. would be an indication of origin.

                                            Netsuke. (Pronounced "Net-skee")

Chinese and Japanese ivories are probably the most copied from very convincing resins and plastics. These will have no lines, have a greasy feel to them, the decoration is dark and sometimes they will even have mold lines. The color is even with no variation, often grey-beige.

I don't recommend doing this but I know some people just won't be able to sleep at night if they don't know what they own. So if you're still not sure if the piece is ivory or plastic, there is a test you can use on a inconspicuous area of the piece. If it's not a collectible piece of jewelry, CAREFULLY heat the tip of a needle and touch the piece where it's not visible. It will sink into plastic. It will not do anything if it's ivory.
19th Century ivory Okimono

Note: I watched a dealer push a pin completely through the face from the back of a reproduction plastic mask giving it three nostrils. Do at your own risk. It will ruin plastic.

The tusk of a walrus are often found carved as mortals, Nesukes, Okimono, Chinese figures etc. Very popular in the late 19th century. Surface of antique walrus ivory has a warm caramel color a little richer and slightly deeper than elephant's ivory with swirls and faint irregular lines unlike those of the elephants. If polished down it will be lighter cream shades. Cool to the touch and very dense and smooth.

Easy to spot. Very porous, open grain, light white color. Light in weight Small black specks are usually visible to the naked eye. There is a lot of quickly and often crudely carved figures and jewelry sometimes sold as "Real ivory" by uniformed dealers. Buy with caution. Generally ivory will be more collectible but there are high quality beautiful contemporary works that can be sold legally.




This is a double edged sword. I have found real ivory necklaces in with junk jewelry. Lots of jewelry is out there that looks like ivory made from, celluloid, resin or plastic. Plastic beads will be even in color, light in weight, the cheap variety will even have mold lines. Celluloid made an attempt on some pieces to include the lines that ivory has but it is symmetrical even and thin. Dresser sets from the 20's used Celluloid that resembles ivory. Collectible in it's own right yet not convincing as ivory.
                                              Celluloid dresser set 1920s -30's
I don't buy or trade in new ivory. I will buy pre ban antique ivory and sell it through good aution houses. Due to restrictions, be aware that sites like Ebay don't allow the sale of some ivory though there is always ivory for sale on ebay. I don't know how they determine what is deemed acceptable, but I have had two pieces removed that were clearly antique. I have also seen clever "Pachyderm" wording to get pieces under the radar. I'm not suggesting it.. jus sayin...  If it is a good piece of antique ivory, it is best to sell through a quality auction house, your shop or locally and only trade in antique pieces.  The new ivory looks much better on the elephant.


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