Every substance on Earth falls into one of three groups: animal, plant or mineral. Minerals are compounds of elements, like carbon, chromium and silicon. Gemstones are simply minerals that people have deemed attractive and, therefore, valuable.
Some members of the plant and animal family are also commonly regarded as gemstones. Amber, for example, is fossilized tree resin. Pearls were once part of living oysters. Ivory is another animal product widely used in jewelry.
When most people think of ivory, they think of elephants and their huge curving tusks. Those tusks are actually teeth, and that’s what ivory is–the teeth of animals. Ivory is also obtained from other animals with large teeth, such as the walrus, hippopotamus, narwhal and sperm whale. As some of these animals, particularly elephants, are endangered species, it’s now illegal to import most ivory into the United States. Fossil ivory is the tusks of wooly mammoths preserved by freezing thousands of years ago. The tusks aren’t true fossils, so although this material is commonly used, the name isn’t accurate. Antique ivory is the preferred designation.
Bone looks and feels much different from ivory, although treated bone is sometimes sold as an ivory substitute. Vegetable ivory, which comes from the tagua nut, is a widely-used substitute. The seed of the ivory palm is another source of vegetable ivory.
Real ivory will show banding, rather like tree rings, when viewed in cross-section, as a new layer is added each year. Bone has stripes rather than banding, and vegetable ivory has no banding.
Ivory is soft, making it a timeless favorite for carving. Archeologists have found items carved from ivory that are more than 20,000 years old. It’s been shaped into figurines, statues and every kind of jewelry. Scrimshaw is ivory with incised designs.
When new, ivory is white or pale yellow. It darkens naturally with age, becoming darker yellow or brownish. It can be bleached with a careful application of peroxide, although most people value the patina age brings.
Because it is organic, ivory can be easily damaged if mishandled. It absorbs moisture if stored in damp conditions or cracks if allowed to dry out. It also contracts in the cold and expands in the heat. Ivory jewelry should never be immersed in water or subjected to harsh cleaners. Special care must be taken to keep moisture from the stringing material used with ivory beads, as it can ruin the beads from the inside out. Ivory is best cleaned by simply wiping it with a soft, damp cloth.
Various substances have been used as imitation ivory, starting with celluloid. Plastic is currently the most common imitator. While it might look the same, it feels different. French ivory, Ivorette, and Ivorine are trademarked ivory imitations