How to Clean and Repair Ivory Jewelry

by Dale Armstrong
Question #1:

How would I clean genuine ivory that has been in a box in the home of a smoker since 1940? It is a bracelet with four carved pieces of ivory strung together with ivory beads.

-Ann in Opelika, Alabama

Question #2:

I have an ivory piece that has broken. Can you recommend an adhesive that will not damage the ivory?
Answer #1:

For this particular subject, I always turn to my personal source, Wire Faculty member Scrimshaw Mary of Nashville, TN. She responded with the following:
Oh my, a really good question for sure.

Ivory is a natural material and porous. It will absorb moisture out of the air and anything around it. Hence the reason to always store an ivory piece, (especially jewelry), in a plastic bag to give it a controlled environment away from the surrounding environment, such as low or high humidity. Is it stained and badly discolored or what? You cannot scrub any stain out, because once it is discolored, it is in there pretty much for good. What gives ivory that yellowing over time (that brings out the natural grain in the ivory) is human body oils from wearing and handling it.

A general cleaning can be done with a q-tip and baby oil to replace some of the moisture, and using a soft cloth to hand polish will help bring back some luster to it (but do not add polish). This can help remove any surface dirt from the beads. If the beads are carved, it will help to loosen anything in the cracks so that can be removed. Even working under a magnifying glass and using a needle or metal scribe can help loosen any caked in residue if done slowly and carefully so as not to scar the ivory itself and using the baby oil to soften up the foreign matter.

Never use water~! You cannot dip the beads in water or a solution of any kind and just leave them to soak. Being natural, the ivory will absorb the liquid and swell; once removed and dried, the moisture absorbed will slowly evaporate and the beads will crack, etc.

I have never done any real "restoration" work on old jewelry pieces. If there is another way, I haven't heard of it simply because, as you may know, I use the raw material to create my own shapes, cabs, etc. Unfortunately, I have no idea concerning nicotine and its effects on ivory or how long an "odor" to a sensitive non-smoker would be.

Answer contributed by Dale "Cougar" Armstrong
Answer #2:

For accurate answers to certain questions I often turn to my jewelry making peers and associates. For the correct answer to this query I asked Scrimshaw artist Mary Bailey and her blade-maker husband Joe, of Nashville, TN. The following is their very informative response:

Okay, first off we both know that this is too general when referring to `ivory piece` since we have no idea if it is a carved pendant piece, a statue, a bead, a tusk, etc. Because of this, we will have to go with the assumption that maybe it is a broken pendant piece. (Repairing a statue can involve having to actually drill and set holding pins before gluing.)

Ivory is a natural material and as such `breathes`, meaning that it reacts with the environment around it. It will absorb moisture from the air in a high humidity environment and as equally, will suffer from a very dry environment. Changes between the two can affect ivory drastically simply because the absorbing and then drying causes the ivory to swell and shrink, resulting in cracking.

If you collect ivory pieces, keep them in a curio cabinet in what becomes a stable environment and place a small saucer with water dipped cotton balls in it. Check the saucer occasionally to check the status of the cotton balls. If they are still wet, then the ivory has absorbed all it needs, if the balls are dry, then your ivory is very dry and is seeking the moisture it needs, so replace the cotton balls with wet ones. Do not store ivory pieces in direct sunlight since anything left in direct sunlight heats up after long exposure and then cools down creating another classic chance of cracking. Leaving ivory pieces in areas where a fireplace or wood stove is used creates the same problems.

1. Clean the broken area edges using a cotton ball with a small amount of rubbing alcohol on it to remove any oils that may be present on the ivory. This is normally human body oil and as such it will affect the adhesive being used for repairing. (Human body oil is what adds to the patina of aging ivory giving it that yellow cast that brings out the grains in the ivory.)

2. Once well cleaned and air-dried, you can use super glue to put the pieces back together. Don`t worry about excess glue seeping out between the joint sections. Once it sets, the extra glue can be removed by using acetone to remove the glue. (I`d suggest using a q-tip dipped in acetone to gently wipe off the excess glue from the surface.)

3. When completely dry and sealed, if this is a piece that is going to be wire wrapped, the outer wire border should help reinforce the rejoined pieces and keep it stable.

Hope this answers the question. Mary and Joe

Answer contributed by Dale `Cougar` Armstrong


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  • Category: General Education
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