We all know them, the classic flowery and animal motifs made of ivory, which at the start of last century decorated the lapels of fashionable women and that have now largely been replaced by the mass production of modern, plastic items. The craft that used to transform elephant ivory into decorative items of jewelry and objects is now faced with stiff competition. However, the profession of ivory carver is still taught in Michelstadt in Odenwald.

Ivory Carver.
Ivory carver workshop
Working with ivory requires a keen feel for forms
A student carves surrogate ivory

Ivory carving has always been a very special crafts skill, based on ornamental and figurative presentation. Just like gemstone engraving, this profession is found in regional centers. At the end of the 18th century, it was Count von Erbach who brought back from his travels a new material for the horn carvers, elephant ivory. A new trade emerged, thus laying the foundation for the center of ivory carving in Germany. Born of the necessity to train young people in the profession, an exceptional education center was founded over 100 years ago: the Ivory Carving School and the current College of Wood and Ivory Carving Professions. Although 50 apprentices were trained in 2003, the numbers of companies employing apprentices in this trade have since fallen. Young people wishing to learn this exotic profession are finding it increasingly difficult to find role models in the craft. But the vocational college in Michelstadt is attempting to fill this gap.

Carved act
A series in the style of a collage

Covering a full-time course of three years, students can learn the profession of ivory carvers. Naturally, purely decorative aspects are no longer the focal point of the curriculum. Even if the craft of ivory carving is still very much rooted in tradition, the course in Michelstadt is contemporary. The main focus of the design is in finding the right form and in the figurine presentation. The courses primarily convey crafts skills and techniques and also adequate, contemporary forms, as the quality of their design is of great significance. The three years of training are divided into the basic course, specialist grade 1 and specialist grade 2. In addition to the teaching of crafts techniques and working methods, the draft is also an important phase of defining forms. In many cases, nature is the source of inspiration for creative ivory carvers; however, the aim of the design is not to make a realistic replication, but instead to sharpen our awareness for the essence and characteristic features. A wealth of ideas and the originality of the draft are additional features that are demanded of the students.

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Ulrike Bednarksi completed her master’s examination as ivory carver in 2004
A group of figures made of bone

The profession of ivory carvers is now dominated by the use of the material mammoth ivory, ivory made of bovine bones and ivory nut (tagua nut). Due to the protection of endangered species treaty and the ban on trading ivory that have been in place since 1988, it became necessary to resort to these natural materials. Ivory from old stocks or elephant ivory that is now permitted on the market is neglected to a greater degree in the curriculum. Instead, modern plastics have been included in the workshops for ivory carving. In addition to the techniques of processing ivory, jewelry production and learning basic goldsmith skills are important parts of the education.

Pia Blumenschein and Ina Klötzing created the “Network at the Center of Events” in cooperation
The Venus Trap by Claudia Kohlschreiber

One can fairly say that the masters course in ivory carving, lathing and wood sculpting is a special feature. In view of the fact that ivory carving firms are very rare, it is very difficult to find an apprenticeship. And in view of the fact that one cannot become a master without first being a journeyman, the college does cater to those wishing to become masters. Every two years, a scholarship for master’s students is awarded in cooperation with the City of Erbach, the local German Ivory Museum and also through the temporary recruitment of regional sponsors. The results of the master’s courses are presented to the general public within the framework of a special exhibition.

A permanent exhibition shows the current work by the students

In addition to the actual teaching, there are special offers that enable students to gain important professional experience and that enlarge on the curriculum. These include study trips to Italy with a focus on art and stylistic research, public exhibitions with student work, the conveyance of presentation techniques and the handling of public criticism. Job placements in crafts firms or similar jobs in the chosen profession allow students to garner initial experience in practical situations.

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Small group of objects, carved out of tagua nut
Sounding figures

Project work is commissioned in the 3rd year of the apprenticeship in all of the taught professions; this provides students with important experience in dealing with customers. A large proportion of the masters who were trained in Michelstadt now work as freelancers. This provides an important contribution to a positive development in this old crafts profession. www.berufsfachschule-holz-elfenbein.de