Ivory History, Identification Guide


What is Ivory?

Ivory has been, prized and sorted after for a very long time. Unfortunately, animals have been killed not for food but just for their ivory. Even today, there is a problem with poaching ivory. Ivory is a white dense material that was once part of an animal. The parts of the animal that are ivory are considered tusks or teeth. Ivory is found, in lots of different creatures from walrus – hippopotamus – Narwhal – Warthog – Sperm Whale, and typically elephants all have ivory,

What Has Ivory Been Used For?

Ivory has been used in one form or another for hundreds if not thousands of years in decorative arts. Just some of the examples are jewelry, inlay in boxes or furniture, piano keys, cutlery, handheld fans, brushes, small card cases books and so much more, you really wouldn’t realize just how much ivory was incorporated into things, especially during the 19th century.

Sailors used to go out hunting whales for their blubber to make lantern oil. Once they captured and killed the whale sailors used to use whale ivory and carve it with scenes of the ship they sailed on to pass the time, for example, this is known as scrimshaw.

The Chinese have carved ivory for hundreds of years in so many forms, figures, small netsuke, fans they made things like snuff bottles, they used ivory in their garments sometimes as buttons or enhancement, they carved models of ships, dragons even whole villages and so much more.

Other materials that look like ivory.

We have already looked at some of the things that are made from ivory. It is a similar story where items have also been made out of bone and had bone inlaid in boxes and cabinets etc.
Well, it’s not just ivory or bone you’ve got stimulants such as celluloid and Bakelite and even modern plastic now all designed to simulate ivory. This means there are quite a lot of materials that can all look like ivory.

It has always been legal in the UK to trade in ivory which predates 1947. however, in April 2018 the UK government said it was going to introduce a ban on all ivory with some exceptions.

The exceptions are such as items containing less than 10 percent ivory, for example, they are referring to things like Pianos, furniture where there is a small amount of ivory, or musical instruments.

There will be some exceptions that are deemed to be rare and important as selected by a variety of experts from museums and historical societies.

If you wish to sell ivory products once this law is in place you will have to register and have your item assessed to see if it fits in the less than ten percent and over 100 years old at the time of this law so must pre-date 1918, (the USA has a rolling 100 years) or to see if your item has national historical interest.

If not then you will not be able to monetize/sell your item. If you wish to sell something that doesn’t fit in with the new criteria then the ivory would have to be removed meaning silver cutlery sets etc would have to be destroyed and sold as scrap to get any money back.

There don’t seem to be any laws about keeping and owning the pieces you already have. This act is still going through the court system and a result isn’t expected until the summer of 2020.

How To Identify Ivory From Other Materials.

Here we have two examples of letter openers can you tell which one is ivory and which one is bone?

Just from the picture? well you will do it in a few minutes

The easiest way of identifying ivory from the bone will be on visual inspection. Here is a close-up zoomed-in image of the two knives above. The first thing you look for is if you look at that photograph you notice one is very clean while the other has black lines and dots, this is the indicator that it is bone. The bone will have lots of little black pitting or veining and that is because you have blood vessels and things running through the bone and they’ll always leave the black marks.

Ivory does not have veins so doesn’t have the blood marks, instead, with ivory you are looking for cross Hatching depending on how it is cut or the grain but it’s always very smooth and very clean looking compared to bone, that’s the best way to tell,

With time and practice you will learn the skills needed to identify ivory from bone most of the time with the naked eye you won’t even need to use an eyeglass most of it you can see straight away but with an eyeglass, you can zoom in and see the crosshatch.

How To Distinguish Between Ivory And Plastic / Celluloid.

Now you’ve got the problem of celluloid and plastics, most of the time you can do this on visual inspection as plastics and celluloid will not have the cross-hatch marks that you find on ivory.

Most plastic will be very smooth flat and clean, however, some molded plastics can present marks from the mold that could be confused with cross-hatching,

What are you going to do if you can not see with your eyes? There is a way to test.

Heat up a pin so it is red hot, make sure to use safety gloves and grips. Once your pin is red hot all you have to do is touch it to the ivory.

If the item is ivory it’s not supposed to do anything to the ivory however it is supposed to leave a burn mark on bone and will melt celluloid and plastic so test in an area that is hidden if possible.

Should you wish to I have a film on youtube that covers all this and more that I created a little while back, here is the link.


During this article, I learned that ivory can be distinguished from bone with a number of different tests. We have looked at these tests and any risks involved. These tests are very important because many products look like ivory.

I have learned the sad truth, that animals are still being potched to harvest their tusks and teeth. There is currently a court case battle to ban all ivory antique ivory objects included.

Ivory products have been created and beautifully carved by skilled craftsmen for hundreds of years, however, it is considered by the majority of people to be no longer publically correct to collect such things.

I hope you found this article helpful and interesting, remember to bookmark our website and why not sign up to our blog so that you can see future articles covering all aspects of antiques, collectibles, and dealing.

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