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Ivory or Not?

(c) Copyright Golden’s Antique Supply 2000

Ivory comes from the tusks of elephants. Many other substances such as bone, plastics, teeth and other tusks have been used in the place of ivory. The following is a description of ivory and the items that may be mistaken for ivory.

ANTLER

Antlers are hollow and the outer surface is harder than bone. They have been used for a long time in knife and dagger handles and shade from a deep brown to a light cream.

BONE

The surface of bone is duller than that of polished ivory. Bones are hollow and a cross section will reveal a grain resembling the black dots of beard stubble. The grain along the longitudinal section will display brown or black streaks.

IVORY

Ivory comes from the tusk of the elephant. A cross section of reveals a crisscross pattern which is unique to ivory. Along the longitudinal side (long side) of the tusk, ivory will display a wood grain pattern. It has a soft sheen due to the oils it contains.

PLASTIC

Since the invention of celluloid, several different plastic materials have been made to resemble ivory. One in particular, ivorine uses alternating dark and light layers of plastic to attempt the grain pattern of ivory. This pattern is too regular for real ivory. All plastics do not have the weight or density of real ivory. Plastics are a poor conductor of heat and will feel warm to the touch.

TEETH

Hippopotamus – These are the hardest of all ivory-like substances. The surface is a bright white and upon examination the grain runs in one direction and is wavy.

Whale - These are most often used in scrimshaw. Items carved from whales teeth will display a striated pattern to the grain of the tooth.

TUSKS

Boar - Since the boar’s tusks are small, usually the entire tusk is used in the carving. If you could take a cross-section of the tusk, you would see that the tusk is triangular. Boar tusks make a very fine white ‘ivory’ and was a particular favorite of one school of netsuke carvers.

Narwhal - This tusk comes from an endangered species of whale and can often be found in lengths from six to eight feet. It is seldom cut into sections and was used in walking canes when left intact and objects such as netsukes when cut into smaller pieces. Narwhal tusks are hollow and have a graining resembling that of a tree.

Walrus - Items carved from walrus tusks exhibit a mottled appearance due the interior of the tusk being harder than the exterior. These are usually used in netsuke and dagger handles.

VEGETABLE “IVORY”

This ‘ivory’ actually comes from a palm tree in South America and is softer than either bone or ivory. The grain pattern is circular and indistinct. The surface is dull and was used mainly in the production of small items, ie. buttons.

The following chart shows tests for various ivory-like materials and the results of the test when applied to each material. CAUTION: Always be respectful of other’s merchandise and perform these tests only with the owner’s permission and only on a hidden area of the object.

Substance

Red Hot Pin
(Touch to Surface)

Knife
(Draw Across Surface)

Acetone
(Apply Drop to Surface)

Sulphuric Acid
(Apply Drop to Surface)

Antler

No effect

Light scratching

No effect

No effect

Bone

No effect

Light scratching

No effect

No effect

Ivory

No effect

Light scratching

No effect

No effect

Plastic

Smoke or visible hole

Deep cut

Begins to dissolve

Unknown

Teeth

No effect

Light scratching

No effect

No effect

Tusks

No effect

Light scratching

No effect

No effect

Vegetable

Unknown

Unknown

Unknown

Brown stain

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