Stepping out of the Ivory Tower...Part Two

By: Carly Hill, Staff Writer • Jun 22, 2012 • 0 Comments

Owning antique ivory is a luxury for so many reasons – its smooth, pure, creamy color - its silky, rich texture.  But, what makes it even more valuable is when you know something about it.  When you’re educated.  When you have people over, admiring your ivory, wow them with your knowledge of the substance.  Antiques all have a story.  So, read on and become an ivory expert before picking your piece!  If you missed Tuesday’s blog about ivory, get caught up right here.

Ivory is the technical term for animal teeth, but most often refers to elephant or mammoth tusks.  While similar to bone and antler, it’s different in that it has no blood vessel system, so the bone is more dense.  The most common type of ivory in the US comes from elephant, walrus, sperm whale, and hornbill.  Most of us wouldn’t have a hard time identifying ivory from other different substances, but if you read on, you can impress your friends and colleagues by actually being able to tell the difference between different types of ivory because they are structurally different. 

Elephant Ivory

This is the most popular type of ivory.  It includes Indian and African elephants, as well as extinct animals such as mammoths, and mastodon.   

Elephant ivory can have a cross section of up to 20 cm and be almost 3 yards.  Unlike human teeth, elephant ivory has no enamel coating.  What they do have is called a cementum layer, which dealers often call the “bark” or the “rind.”  The cementum is sometimes retained in carvings.  One third to one half of elephant tusks are hollow.  If you cut ivory lengthwise, you will see the triangular growth lines inside. Unique to elephant ivory are Lines of Retzius – fine, intersecting lines forming diamond shapes.

Elephant ivory has a fine, even grain, so it can be carved into almost anything – something as large as a (tusk sized) statue and as small as a piano key.

Hippopotamus Ivory 

This type of ivory is used for flat items like buttons and inlays.  The innermost layer of hippo ivory has a marbled appearance that looks slightly greenish.  Hippo ivory is denser than elephant ivory, so it has a finer grain and is more difficult to carve.  Hippo ivory has ring-like shapes when you view a cross section, unlike the diamond shapes found in the elephant ivory.

Walrus Ivory

Walrus ivory is used for smaller objects.  Walrus ivory’s unique feature is that is has two distinct layers -an inner layer of dentin which gives its carvings a naturally marbled appearance.

Sperm Whale Ivory

Often confused with walrus ivory, sperm whale ivory has two distinct layers.  However, sperm whale has a much larger inner layer, which appears marbled and more yellow in color than walrus ivory.

Hornbill Ivory

The hornbill is a bird native to the East Indies.  Hornbill teeth stand out in a cross section because of their bright yellow inner layer and reddish rim.

Pictured above is a superb ivory mounted tantalus from Sallea Antiques. Have a wonderful weekend and Happy Latiquing!