Daily Tip June 29: Testing True Ivory

By on June 28, 2010
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Daily Wire Jewelry Making Tip
June 29, 2010


What kind of tests could I do at home to determine that a piece is truly ivory, and not a replica or imitation?

-Susannah in Jacksonville, Florida


For this answer, I turned to the member of our Wire Faculty who is an expert on ivory, “Scrimshaw” Mary Bailey.

Mary says:

On something that has been carved or cut, one should be able to see what we refer to as “checkering.” Checkering is the natural growth pattern in the ivory, and not something that man can imitate by using plastics, resins or even ground-up ivory dust. Ivory also has a natural aging coloring process that takes place in it, and human body oils can enhance this change in coloration, especially in beads.

Usually by tilting a carved piece at an angle, you will usually find evidence of this checkering in the ivory confirming that it is real and not imitation. Another method is a hot needle test. Heat a needle red-hot and touch it lightly to the ivory. If it is real, it will burn and stink something terrible! If it is imitation, it generally will melt and blacken like plastic does. (Ivory stinks like an overripe sewer when cut, and fossil ivory is worse!)

If you see any little pits in the material, it is probably a bone material of some type. Camel bone is one material used a lot to make beads out of and often mistaken for being ivory. Large backbone sections of fish can even be carved and can often be mistaken for ivory. Again, that pitted or pithy look is a dead giveaway that it isn’t real.

P.S.: Wire-Sculpture does not, in any way, promote poaching or illegally-gotten jewelry supplies. None of our products contain true ivory. Many folks have heirloom ivory or finished ivory jewelry, and may be curious as to its authenticity, which is why we have provided a simple test.

Answer contributed by Dale “Cougar” Armstrong

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  1. avatar


    June 29, 2010 at 8:14 am

    I must be mistaken but I thought it was no longer legal to sell or buy true ivory in the US?

  2. avatar

    Shannon Collins Kasevich

    June 29, 2010 at 9:23 am

    I thought Ivory was protected and should not be on the market,as elephants are protected as well.

  3. avatar


    June 29, 2010 at 9:58 am

    I will not use ivory due to the horrors associated with the ivory trade. There are many materials that are beautiful; ivory is sold for its status value, not that it is necessarily more beautiful than anything else. Even if I somehow came up with antique ivory, I would not use it.

    You see, elephants are shot by poachers using rifles made for killing much smaller animals, often with old worn out military rifles. The elephant is not killed, only wounded, and is then followed for days, even weeks, until it is too weak to go on. Then, the poachers move in and cut out the tusks WHILE THE ANIMAL IS STILL ALIVE, and leave it to die a miserable death. I cannot contribute to this by buying ivory or using it in my work.

  4. avatar


    June 29, 2010 at 6:59 pm

    I recognize and concur with the concerns expressed here, however I do understand what you were trying to accomplish by providing the information. If I ever find that I have inherited a piece of jewelry, I would want to know how to find out what it truly is before deciding if it is trash or treasure. People hold on to a lot of things and believe they are things that they aren’t because it was passed on to them with a story. Emotion takes over. Unfortunately you can’t trust a mall jeweler so they just keep it in the drawer and wear it maybe on special occasions. Next thing it is yours/mine. At least now I will be able to determine if it is made of ivory. See it won’t prove any point to throw out an inherited piece. Comparatively, it has much more impact not to buy ivory in the present day.

    • avatar


      June 29, 2010 at 11:33 pm

      Thanks for ‘getting’ the point of the main question Sonja.

      • avatar


        June 29, 2010 at 11:55 pm

        Hi folks, with regards to the ‘facts’ about ‘ivory’ being present within this discussion, our ivory expert, Mary, adds the following:

        Personally, I have strong convictions regarding the protection of wildlife and I cannot tolerate rumors being shared by people who repeat what they have been told without knowing all of the facts. A frequently encountered misconception by many is that all ivory is “illegal” and this is not so. I will try to briefly explain this misconception so that all can better understand the laws concerning “ivory”. (I am not going to get up on my soapbox and rant about bad game management by certain African countries that didn’t get the concept of protecting a living treasure until too late, unlike their neighbors who truly understood the plight of African elephants and willingly invested time and money protecting the African elephant from poachers.)

        Ivory covers a large area when the word “ivory” is used so loosely. There is fossil mammoth ivory and fossil walrus ivory, as well as what is called “green walrus ivory”, which can now only be sold by native Alaskan Indian tribes as a worked piece of art, since the passing of a law in 1972 covering the selling of fresh kill walrus ivory. The only way a green walrus tusk can be sold in it natural state is between two parties where both are Eskimo (Alaskan native).

        Fossil mammoth and fossil walrus are legal to own and to use. There is Asian and African Elephant ivory and then there is hippo ivory, warthog and even alligator teeth are ivory. Now, here is where the different distinctions come into play:

        As of June 1986, it became “illegal” to “import” any African Elephant Ivory into the United States per CITES and US Fish & Wildlife Service. Importing, buying, and the selling of African elephant ivory is not allowed internationally. This product cannot be imported into, or exported out of, the U.S. or practically any other country of the world. It is legal to own, buy, sell, or ship within the United States, unless there exists a state law banning the crossing of state lines (such is the case with California and New York). Each state has a Department of Fish & Wildlife or Game Department that covers the laws pertaining to allowable animal species and if you are worried about what is legal in your particular state, call them and ask.

        Asian elephant ivory is on the US & CITES Endangered Species list and cannot be imported, bought or sold internationally or interstate, within the US.

        So, prior to this regulation, anything within the United States was and still is “legal” and if you go searching into antique stores or museums or curio shops, etc. you will suddenly be amazed at the finds you will run across that are made of ivory. Everything from carved cameos, to beads, crochet hooks, pie crimps, shoe hooks, and hair brushes sets, to old pianos whose keys once were ivory, to even billiard balls and musical instruments.

        Ivory was once a material used for specialty work, more so in the Orient/Far East than here in the United States. In fact, the demand for ivory was heavier in these areas and still is, despite the laws in place. Big game trophies taken back in the 50’s and 60’s are another source of African elephant ivory, and it is not unusual to see a legal ivory dealer buy up an entire estate collection of animal mounts.

        Now, what you might not know is that ivory has to “cure” before it can even be worked. It is a natural material, and as such is subject to being full of water; and, it cures from the inside outward. So a “freshly” taken tusk is of absolute no use to anyone until it has had time to cure itself out, letting all the natural water held within it to evaporate away. This usually takes some 20 to 30 years, depending on the size of the tusk if left whole, to as little as 5 years for a smaller section. And, with the import ban, that isn’t likely to happen anyway, especially with the large variety of legal sellers one can purchase from.

        Hence the reason most ivory that has been carved or even scrimmed comes from valid, legal dealers of ivory who maintain all of the permits and certificates for reselling, since the majority of seasoned ivory comes from old estate collections. No existing wildlife is harmed because the material used is recycled. Even fossil ivories are subject to having to cure, because of having been buried in the frozen tundra and therefore, have water trapped within.

        Many, many thanks Mary, for providing us with the necessary information!

        • avatar


          January 7, 2013 at 2:29 pm

          I inherited a tusk carved like an alligator from my father who passed away in 1993. It is 34″ long. His brother (my uncle) was a Canadian Christian Brother who spent 30 years of his ministry in Younde Camaroon and received tusks as gifts from some of the tribal elders. He in turn, gave them to his family. My father’s family is mostly deceased now and I cannot find any pictures or proof. I know it has been in my family since at least 1964 but I can’t prove it. Can I still sell it?

          • avatar


            January 10, 2013 at 4:02 pm

            Hi Judy, that’s something you could research online to get the best information. Here’s what I found.
            Here’s a link to a pdf published by the US Fish & Wildlife Service you could start with – it seems to suggest it would be ok, especially if you can prove that it is 100 years old or older.
            You could also try visiting local antique shops and seeing what they have to say about it – many of those folks are a wealth of information! Besides, they might know the local and state laws – some states may have more rules about the ivory trade than those of the federal government. I hope this helps!

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