Daily Wire Tip Oct. 14: Telling Bone from Ivory

By on October 13, 2010
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Daily Wire Jewelry Making Tip for
October 14, 2010


I read your "how to" on authenticating ivory by the "checkering." I wire wrap some bone carvings (ox, cow or camel) and fossilized walrus tusk. Can you tell these from ivory? I do not want to mistakenly work with ivory. Thank you for any info you may have.

-Connie in Kissimmee, Florida


For questions about ivory, I turn to WS Faculty member "Scrimshaw" Mary and her husband, Joe, who say:

Bone is very pithy, and you can see the pore holes in bone, such as cow, camel, ox and even deer, etc.

Ivory has cross-hatching or geometric patterns, and it is almost always solid so that you can polish it to a mirror shine. Bone does not, and will not take a buffing to a high polish without the pores actually grabbing the buffing compound, so that the pores show up as little black dots because they now are full of the buffing compound.

In the fossil walrus, if you have that center of "nutmeg" or "cracked ice" look, that is a dead giveaway for it being ivory. If fossil, it will usually be a light cream in color, etc. and not a stark white.

If you are buying carved material, it is most likely bone. If someone is telling you that it is ivory, but the price is too reasonable, it is not ivory. People will sell you bone for a cheap price and swear it is ivory, but not the other way around.

-Mary & Joe

Answer contributed by Dale “Cougar” Armstrong

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  1. avatar


    October 14, 2010 at 1:37 pm

    I can understand the allure of ivory; it is sort of like having a coat made out of Snow Leopard, or having a comb made from the shell of the Hawksbill Turtle. I can also understand why Mary and Joe do not want to work with ivory; modern ivory (and ancient ivory) require the killing of some mammal, often cruelly. Elephants are often shot, and the tusks hacked out of them, and the animal left to die. Ivory is illegal in many countries, and though in some situations are legal here, it is difficult to tell the source.
    Many people just simply would not use ivory in any case, whether legal or not. Too often the killing is not humane, and the species are endangered.

    • avatar


      October 15, 2010 at 9:43 am

      Actually Alex, the person who asked the question (Connie) does not wish to work with ivory – ‘Scrimshaw Mary’ and her lapidary husband Joe DO work with ivory all the time, which is why they are our ‘Ivory Experts’. They work with both fossil mammoth as well as ‘legally recycled’ ivory (meaning that is came from old museum displays, etc). We have had discussions about this in the past (see post & comments: http://wire-sculpture.com/jewelry-making-blog/2574/testing-true-ivory/#comments ).
      Or better yet, I have copied and pasted that response here as well:

      ‘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!’