Distinguishing Genuine Ivory

Q: How can you tell if an object is genuine ivory? And if it isn’t, what else could it be?

A: Genuine elephant ivory has a rather distinct grain, often called an “engine turned effect”. This looks somewhat like the pattern on the back of some pocket watches, which appears to be a pattern of radiating spiral curves, going in opposite directions, creating a crosshatched pattern. This pattern will appear along the end-grain direction, just like the end-grain of wood. Along the side, only faint parallel lines, again resembling wood grain, will be seen.

While some simulants may get close to the lined look of the side grain, they don’t get that end grain pattern. The Micarta product comes close though, so you have to be careful. None of the cheaper imitations even come close. There are other possibilites too. So called “vegetable ivory”, which is the meat of the Tagua or Ivory palm nut, looks very much like real ivory, except without that grain. Objects made from tagua nuts are seldom more than about an inch or two in size, since they are limited by the size of the nuts. This material has been used for a long time, and many of the smaller Victorian era “ivory” items are in fact, tagua nut. Buttons, especially, were made from it.

While we usually think about ivory as coming from elephants, the term is correctly applied to many other species as well. Ivory from walrus tusks, whale teeth, and even elk teeth, can be accurately called ivory, and each will have a different appearance. And you can buy”fossil” ivory, which is mastodon or mammoth ivory, generally from the Ice Age periods.

In any case, if this is an item you are considering purchasing, you should be aware that there are strong restrictions on the legal trade in ivory, and a thriving black market in poached ivory, much of which is then misrepresented as legal. If you try to resell an ivory object, you could find yourself facing criminal charges. Even if an item is in fact legal (which is almost impossible for an end purchaser, or sometimes even the importer, to be sure of), there are some strong ethical considerations you should keep in mind regarding the ownership of ivory products. It takes owners and buyers to create demand, and demand is what fuels the illegal market as well, a market that is contributing to the extinction of some of the most wonderful animals on the planet. You may wish to consider whether the ownership of even a wonderful work of art is worth taking part in that marketplace, when the various synthetics look so good, and are generally more durable, not to mention the many, many other materials available to carvers which do not pose the same ethical problems.

by Peter W. Rowe M.F.A., G.G.