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Ivory - the Elephant in the Room

Ivory - the Elephant in the Room

Detail from the lid of a Japanese Meiji Period carved ivory box c.1900ShinyPrettyThings

Last week ShinyPrettyThings met with Caroline Cox, a socio-legal academic at the School of Law at Portsmouth University who is running a year-long study into the potential effects of a total ban on the sale of ivory works of art in the UK.

What began as a personal project in response to the Conservative Party’s 2015 manifesto pledge has rapidly built up speed and Caroline’s view on it now is that it may well be her life’s purpose to research and investigate the problematic area that the ivory trade represents.  

So why is it problematic?

Well, ivory is not a new material in the world.  Human beings have been carving, wearing and trading this material since we first walked the earth.  Ivory (along with amber and shell) was one of the very first gem materials.  As a consequence of this, our social history is littered with the material, and in some cases, it is even written on the material itself (scrimshaw – the carvings made by sailors on sperm whale ivory is a case in point).


Frederick Myrick was one of Nantucket's most famous scrimshaw artists, and the first to sign his work.  Born in 1805, Myrick went on at least three whaling voyages.  His carved what may be the most famous whaling scrimshaw that depict American whaling.  "Susan's Teeth" is a series of 22 scrimshaw creations that depict whalers off the coast of Japan (as in this photo) and Peru, ~1829.  Myrick carved this piece from the whaleship "Susan of Nantucket", the whaler shown is the "Ann of London."  He carved this scene for a customer, Mr. James Brown, who was on the "Ann of London."  In 1997, a 'Susan's tooth' sold for $50,600 at a Nantucket auction.  Myrick served aboard the "Susan" from 1826-1829, during which he made at least 44 exquisite scrimshaw carvings.  That output was his entire artistic legacy.  He never carved before or after his whaling voyages on the "Susan".  Myrick married a 'Nantucketer', and later in life moved to western New York state where he died in 1862. 

Ivory is a tough material with an interlocking structure which makes it perfect to take and retain detail in carving.  It is also a relatively soft material (Mohs’ hardness of 2.5-3) meaning that it may be carved, drilled and sawn with ease by hand alone.  The colour of the material – those lovely cream to white tones has been revered over the centuries.


All this means that we have a vast number of pieces of ivory in the world which represent periods of history through their worked forms and representations.  Some of these pieces are purely decorative (jewellery, sculptures), others had a practical purpose (piano keys, cutlery handles), while still more straddle the boundary between the two (netsuke, ornamental boxes).  


Netsuke in the Form of a Dog by Izumiya Tomotada (Japanese, active late 18th century).  Although Chinese folklore disparaged dogs, in Japan they came to be regarded positively as dispellers of evil and portenders of easy childbirth.  They symbolise the eleventh year in the Chinese and Japanese 12-year cycle.  In this example, the crouching animal wears a rope leash. Tomotada, a gifted animal carver, was particularly noted for carvings of oxen with rope halters.  He attracted many pupils, who were permitted to sign their own work as his.  Image courtesy of Walters Art Museum via Wikimedia Commons.

The problem arises when one looks to the source of this material.

At first, ivory was a byproduct of hunting for meat to sustain human life.  In later years, culling was seen as a requirement to keep herds healthy and to prevent threat to human life from the occasional rogue elephant.  We didn’t have the threat of extinction or even the realization that this was a bad thing.  Sadly, this spelled the end for the Egyptian elephant in Roman times, and before that, the dodo – a flightless, apparently delicious, now sadly extinct bird.


Nowadays, the elephant is an endangered species and huge efforts are rightly being made to protect the animal and inform people of its plight to ensure that it does not go the way of the dodo.

Sadly, because of the appeal and the value of ivory, we also have poachers – illegal killers of elephants for their tusks, which are then sold on the black market.  So how do we stop these criminals?  

The American-led response has been to attempt to ban the trade in ivory completely.  But is this working to protect the elephants, and what is the long-term impact of this decision?  

On the morning of June 19, 2015, in Times Square, New York City, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, with wildlife and conservation partners, hosted its second ivory crush event. One ton of ivory they seized during an undercover operation, plus other ivory from the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation and the Association of Zoos and Aquariums was crushed.

Poachers are still a problem – the fires in Kenya in the last month were designed to draw attention to this issue and to get the message across that the powers that be do not approve of the slaughter of herds for the material.  The powerful slogan ‘worth more alive’ was used to highlight the preciousness of the animals themselves.  


Conservation is a relatively new science, and we are vastly more educated and aware than once we were.  It is absolutely right that the elephants be protected and that measures are taken to prevent their being slaughtered for human gain.  

But we have a rich human history that includes ivory.  Some of that ivory is exquisitely carved and fashioned, and represents mankind’s understanding of religion, politics and beauty through the ages.  To destroy those articles is to attempt to whitewash history itself.  As Caroline said, it would be “cultural vandalism”.

Three prehistoric armbands made from ivory - one of mankinds earliest adornments.  Images from the Tropenmuseum, part of the National Museum of World Cultures, via Wikimedia Commons.

Is it possible to love elephants and ivory?

I recently ran a gemmology class on the subject of ivory, and before discussing identifying features of the material, I asked my students what they thought of ivory – whether they liked the material or not.   Aside from the shock of being asked their opinions in a classroom setting, the students were understandably tentative about answering.  On rephrasing the question and asking why they didn’t like ivory, one student replied that it was because she liked elephants.  So I asked whether it might be possible to appreciate both.


Elephants live for a long time.  70 years or so.  They also grieve their dead.  But after sufficient time has passed, ivory can and will exist as a byproduct of an elephant’s natural death.  Is the harvesting and working of this material going to affect elephant populations?  There are arguments for and against this.  

Fossil ivory from mammoths, which have been extinct for thousands of years now, may be legally worked and traded.  There are ways to distinguish it from elephant ivory which may be learned in any school of Gemmology, or even by reading through texts freely available on the CITES website.

The difference between elephant and mammoth ivory may be seen in the differing angles of the Schreger lines - growth marks seen as intersecting lines in a cross-section of the material.

There are vast stockpiles of confiscated elephant ivory around the world.  Kenya proved this by burning theirs.  The street value of this ivory (despite the claim that the material is worthless to anyone but the elephant itself) was figured at over $100 million.  So the material itself isn’t actually that rare.  So where does the demand come from?

China is currently held to be the greatest source of the demand for ivory and the reason why poaching exists.  It is held as a high-status item and is supposedly also used in their traditional medicines.  But this was not always the case.  Until the eighteenth century and the rise of the West, ivory was believed to be a relatively vulgar material in China.  In her book Ivory, Maggie Campbell Pedersen writes that "by the seventeenth century the area of Fujian was becoming prosperous...  The use of ivory suddenly became so widespread that in some circles it began to be regarded as slightly vulgar."   It was Western demand that changed this perception.  


An historical photo from the 1880s/1890s showing the extent of the ivory trade in East Africa at this time.  Unknown photographer, via Wikimedia Commons.

So how do we reduce the status value of a material?  

One answer might be to make it common and vulgar once again.  If ivory were widely available to anyone who wanted it, the price and the prestige of that same material would surely drop significantly.  

Without demand, those criminals who endanger the elephant herds by poaching would not have any financial motivation to do so.  

At the same time, it might be possible to educate widely on the history and the repercussions of the trade in ivory, and on the conservation and care of those remaining elephants.  Care that might be funded - in part - through the legal disposal of those stockpiles of otherwise worthless ivory.


For more information on this approach, please see Daniel Stiles’ article for National Geographic.  Written in September 2015, it takes a very balanced view of the problem and surrounding factors – how best to ensure the survival of the elephants and minimize the risk of future poaching activity.  

For more information on Caroline Cox’s research project, please see the Antiques Trade Gazette.

If you are associated with the antiques trade and would like to support Caroline's research into the effect of banning the trade in ivory in the UK, please complete her questionnaire here.

For more information on Maggie Campbell Pedersen's work on organic gemstones, please visit her website.

ShinyPrettyThings would like to thank Caroline Cox and Maggie Campbell Pedersen for their invaluable expertise on this subject.

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