Ivory, bone and fake ivory


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Ivory is a traditional and valuable material that comes from from the tusks or tooths of elephants, hippopotamus, narwal whales, wild boars a a few other animals. Since ancient times, ivory has been used to make figures, buttons, combs, chess boards and more.   

Genuine ivory has long been a challenge to identify, as similar looking items have been made out of bone, vintage plastics, ceramics and nuts. The following is a quick look at telling the difference between ivory and it’s fake counterparts.  

Ivory.  Ivory is heavy and cold to the touch when you put it to your cheek.  It will usually have ” Schreger lines.”  These lines may be cross hatching or in circular rings. If you do the so called ‘hot needle’ test and press the tip of a hot needle to ivory surface, it will not press in and may slightly smell of bone.


Shreger lines in ivory

Bone.  Bone will not have the Schreger lines, but will have brown or black pores.  The brown or black is from the accumulation of dirt.  If you press a hot needle to it, it may smoke and will smell of bone.

Plastic ivory.  The most common antique plastic versions of ivory are from bakelite and celluloid.  Bakelite can be heavy like genuine ivory, but celluloid is noticeably light and translucent.  If you press a hot needle to the plastics it will press in easily and smell like chemicals rather than bone.  For a less destructive test test, you can put the item under hot water and get the same chemical smell.  French ivory and ivoryide are names for celluloid ivory.


Celluloid ivory is thin and was often used to make combs, brush handles and mirror frames.

Vegetable ivory.  Vegetable ivory is carved from a very hard Tagua nut of South America, and was commonly used to make little figures and buttons.  It will have a pattern similar to Shreger lines.  The husk of the nut is dark brown and often is part of the carving.    The hot needle test will produce the smell of burning walnut shells.


vegetable ivory carving with the nut’s brown husk remnants on the bottom

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