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What is Ivory?

Mary McMahon
Updated Jun 04, 2024
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Technically, all animals with teeth have ivory, which is composed of a creamy white substance called dentin that makes up the bulk of teeth. However, some animals have particularly large teeth or tusks that lend themselves to harvesting, such as elephants, hippopotami, and whales. Ivory from these animals has been used for centuries in decorative art, and in the manufacture of objects such as pianos and billiard balls. Concerns about declining populations of elephants in particular have led to restrictions on the global trade, and many craftspeople are starting to seek out alternatives such as high quality plastics or tagua, also known as vegetable ivory.

The term has been used in English for almost 1,000 years, and originates from several African words meaning “elephant.” This suggests that elephants have been the primary source throughout European history, and given the formerly large populations of elephants in Asia as well, it is probable that India, Japan, and China also got their ivory from elephants. In North America, scrimshaw artisans got their material from walruses and whales.

Ivory is ideal for decorative art because it is hard, close grained, and takes to carving and dyes well. Sources can be shaved to make inlays or carved whole into elaborate sculptures and art pieces, as well as practical goods. It has been used in traditional art in numerous cultures, and thanks to its durability, many specimens survive, providing clues into the art and culture of other civilizations.

This material should not be confused with bone, which is an aggregate of mineralized connective tissue as well. Unlike bone, ivory does not have blood vessels, and therefore is not nearly as porous. Dentin, the material it is made of, consists of the area of the tooth above the tooth pulp and under the enamel. It contains a mixture of minerals, collagen, and water. The mineralized tissue is much stronger and more durable than bone.

Generally, ivory is divided into two basic classes: live, from recently killed animals, and dead, which has been stored. Dead ivory tends to be less durable and more subject to fracture, which means that it is not prized as much as live. Restrictions on the global trade have led to a decrease in the availability of live ivory, however, so artisans who work with this material have been forced to adapt or switch to a non-animal source, such as tagua. Tagua is the seed of the ivory palm, and is a renewable and ethical alternative.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a All Things Nature researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By cloudel — On Sep 10, 2012

I have some tagua earrings, and they look just like my friend's genuine ivory earrings. Tague is softer, but it looks identical to ivory.

I heard that it was used long ago to make dice, buttons, and dominoes. I suppose this was good for the elephants and whales!

I also have some carved tagua figurines. They are off-white swans, and they look just as valuable as the kind made of real ivory.

By JackWhack — On Sep 09, 2012

My grandfather lives in Arkansas, and he loves to hunt wild boar. He harvests their tusks and uses them to make ivory jewelry and canes.

He doesn't have access to whales or elephants, and since he likes to harvest his own ivory instead of buying it elsewhere, boar tusks are his best source. He made me an ivory necklace for my birthday out of one, and it looked as good as anything I've seen in a crafts store.

By OeKc05 — On Sep 09, 2012

@ysmina - I have heard that real ivory cannot be penetrated with something hot, while the fake kind can. You can get a needle really hot and try to poke a hole in the ivory with it.

If it won't go in and just leaves a little spot on the surface, then you have real ivory. If it goes in easily and melts the material around it, then you have fake ivory.

By healthy4life — On Sep 08, 2012

@SarahGen - The problem would be finding the animals that just died in time to harvest the ivory. How would you know which animals to follow around and watch?

I suppose if you could tell that an elephant was sick, you could keep an eye on it. However, this would not be very easy or economical. I doubt people would waste time trying to decide which animals were about to keel over and offer up their ivory.

By ysmina — On Sep 07, 2012

Is there a way to find out where ivory items were sourced from?

I have an ivory necklace and honestly I thought that ivory was a type of stone. Now I feel really weird thinking that I might have been wearing an animal part on my neck.

I just want to know which animal or non-animal source it was taken from.

By SarahGen — On Sep 06, 2012

@MikeMason-- I don't understand why we can't just use the ivory from animals that have died naturally.

I get it that if the ivory is taken long after the animal is dead, it's less durable. But if the animal has just died, it shouldn't be a problem right?

This seems like a humane solution for people who don't want to kill animals but who still want to use carved ivory.

By stoneMason — On Sep 05, 2012

@anon46557-- I think what the first person meant is that some of the animals that ivory is obtained from is endangered. The article explained that ivory from live animals is more prized, and that does put species at risk, especially if they're already decreasing in numbers.

I just wrote a paper on endangered species so I know for example that the Asian elephant is an endangered species and the African elephant is threatened.

So I agree with @anon369 that we should not kill these animals to get ivory. I don't think that ivory is so valuable that we can afford to lose a whole animal species over it. What do you guys think?

By anon206713 — On Aug 17, 2011

It says in the beginning of the article that ivory is a term used for elephant in some african languages.

By anon46557 — On Sep 26, 2009

"Ivory is an endangered species"...Seriously? You just said that?

By anon369 — On Apr 23, 2007

Although your article on shoe horns and ivory was interesting, ivory is an endangered species and as such, I would not use the product in whatever form it's sold in.

Poaching has been going on for hundreds of years and is a cruel and barbaric practice.

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Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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