Ivory as a decorative element in jewellery and fine furnishings has been prized and sought after since the 14th century. Sadly, this craving for the exotic and rare led to the eventual declaration of the African Elephant as endangered in the 1980’s. The ivory trade was then made illegal and the import and export of it banned. While today Mammoth ivory is still legal as it is exhumed from an extinct species and given some fanfare for it’s ancient nature, there exists an irreplaceable fascination with original elephant ivory in antiques. As it becomes more and more difficult to find due to its restricted trade and import, its value has also risen with some pieces fetching very high prices. The trouble is how can one tell if what they are buying is indeed genuine ivory or one of the many imitations and substitutes?
Because of its desirability as a material, ivory supply has not always met demand. Due to the limited amount of ivory export, manufacturers had to turn to alternate sources in order to compensate. Imitation ivory has been an alternate source of ivory since the 19th century, with recorded cases of piano makers selling pianos with faux ivory keys despite labelling them otherwise. Early ivory alternatives include vegetable ivory, celluloid, bone, and even powdered ivory resins. With the development of plastics in the early 20th century, imitation ivory became a common and affordable ivory substitute. When it comes to identifying antique ivory, it is important to first determine whether it is real or not.
All of the identification techniques suggested here are guides in order to help a buyer more closely distinguish real versus fake ivory. The only way to authenticate ivory with 100% accuracy is to have it inspected by a trained scientist.
Many people suggest the ‘hot needle test’, which is not only ineffective, but it can often lead to damaging otherwise valuable pieces. The most reliable method of identifying ivory is by handling it, and ruling out what it is not. Colour, weight, and temperature are all important factors when it comes to deciding its authenticity. Real ivory will build up a patina over time, often yellowing with age. However, this is not indicative of all ivory, as it depends on how it has been handled and how well it has been preserved. Fraudulent traders have been known to darken real and imitation ivory, in order to replicate an antique patina.
Another obvious and immediate telltale sign of imitation ivory is cast lines. Many tourist trade items of carved tusk like the one pictured in this article may appear genuine at first however a closer look will reveal areas where the item has been composed of two halves pulled from a mould. These pieces may be priced too good to be true and given an “antique” appearance, but again, a rudimentary inspection will usually make its true nature clear.
Bone is also a very common substitute for genuine ivory and has the organic feeling that comes with ivory. While it may have been treated to have an ivory look, the easiest way to see that it isn’t ivory is its porous nature.
As the majority of ivory pieces are sourced from the cementum and dentine parts of an elephants tusk, ivory will often prove to be a weighty and cold material. When compared to bone or plastic, it will feel heavy, solid, and cool to touch. Plastic reacts to heat faster than ivory, and will often maintain warmth after being held. A great way to test this is to hold a piece of plastic and ivory in your hand for a short while, and then test the temperature of each against your wrist or cheek. Genuine ivory should still feel cool, whilst most plastics will have retained some body heat.
By observing colour, weight, and temperature, you can find signs that are indicative of the validity of your ivory. However, one of the more reliable methods of authenticating your ivory is through the inspection of its Schreger pattern (seen clearly in the Buddha’s belly pictured in this article). Schreger lines are the visual pearlescent artefacts that are present within ivory. Depending on which part of the tusk an ivory piece was carved from, the Schreger lines will appear as cross hatching, stacked chevrons, or even long ghostly streaks. Many synthetic ivories try to replicate the Schreger pattern, yet frequently have trouble duplicating the cross hatching effect. Plastic ivory that tries to reproduce the Schreger lines will often appear too uniform, and processed. The Schreger pattern is also a great discerning indication between elephant and mammoth ivory. This can be an important fact to determine, as the trade of mammoth ivory is still legal. As a general rule, if the angle of the cross-hatching is greater than 110 degrees, it will be elephant ivory. If the angle of the lines is less than 90 degrees, it indicates that the ivory is from a mammoth.
This article was published in Antiques and Art Magazine Queensland (July-November 2013).