Ivory or Not to Be.

Decoration of any object for the purpose of beautification rather than camouflage has been used for thousands of years. As time went by the degree of sophistication of such enhancement and the range of media used advanced almost beyond belief.

To take one example I have chosen the craft of inlay; where the surface of an object is excavated in a pattern to receive alternative and contrasting coloured materials to accentuate that pattern. On furniture of say walnut structure the inlay may be of ebony, pale boxwood or sycamore dyed green with oxide of iron.  Or it might be ivory.  Throughout the 16th to the late 19th century this decoration was highly prized but the raw material was hard to come by. In such a situation cheaper alternative materials are always found.  Here the produce of molluscs came to the rescue in the form of the armour of the Pinctada, the Haliotis and the Caenogastropoda to be supplemented by Ivorine (celluloid) in the 1850’s. Importantly for the craftsmen the difference between mollusc and ivory is indistinguishable to the naked eye and therefore it is obvious that not all that was described as ivory was in fact from a noble tusk.  By the late 18th century, when collecting fine furniture from an earlier period became fashionable, those handling the sales, later to be known as ‘antique’ dealers, were keen always to declare the use of ivory to further its appeal and increase the value. This practice continued until 1st July 1975, on which day there came into force legislation called CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, an international agreement between governments. Its aim is to ensure that international trade in specimens of wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival. So now the export of ivory across the globe is strictly controlled if not forbidden, but trade in the humble periwinkle is not.  Get your abalone here ….but you’ll need a scientifically verified certificate to prove it, one way or the other. How things have changed.