Ivory By Prof. Roland Phlip Director of the Institute for Advanced Balisong Studies


Ivory is a material sometimes used as a decorative insert in the handles of balisong knives.

Ivory is a natural material. It is, in fact dentin. Dentin is what the majority of one of your teeth is made of. Human teeth, like those of most animals, are rather small and their dentin is a bit soft. A few animals, however, have very large teeth with very hard, dense dentin.

These large teeth are often not inside the animal's mouth but grow outside the mouth. We call them tusks. Elephants, hippopotamus, narwhals, whales, and walrus, are the best-know such animals.

Anatomically, tusks are different from horns or antlers because tusks are actually teeth. Animals with tusks do not shed their tusks as many animals with antlers shed their antlers annually.

Tusks are teeth, but they're bit different than most teeth in that they keep growing over the life of the animal. The older the animal, the longer its tusks will be. But, if an animal looses a tusk somehow, the tusk usually won't grow back.

As a result, when we obtain a tusk, the animal is usually dead.

The finest ivory comes from elephants. The average weight of a tusk on an adult male African Elephant is 130 pounds (almost 60Kg). But it takes about 20 years for an elephant to grow a tusk that large.

Ivory, especially elephant ivory, has long been prized for its beauty, durability, and its suitability for both practical and artistic purposes.

Before the development of modern plastics, ivory was the prefect material for many practical purposes. Ivory is strong and dense and durable. It's water-resistant. It has a pleasant, off-white color and can be dyed to different colors if desired. While strong, it can be carved and drilled into just about any shape you might like. Buttons for clothing were often made of ivory. In fact, while buttons for clothing today are just about always plastic, they're often made to resemble ivory. Billiards or pool balls were made almost exclusively from ivory because ivory can be carved into a round ball but is durable enough to survive the game. Piano keys were made of ebony wood and ivory because these two materials are durable enough to withstand years of playing.

A single, 130 pound elephant tusk can make a lot of billiards balls and a huge pile of shirt buttons too. So, for many decades demand for ivory was satisfied without substantial impact to elephant populations.

In the 1960s and 70s, in response to growing demand for ivory especially from Asia and the Middle East, poachers in Africa organized themselves into teams and began using motorized vehicles, high-powered rifles, and even automatic weapons. Remember, all these poachers were after was the tusk. If the body of the animal was riddled with machine gun fire, they didn't care. At the peak in the early '70s, it is estimated that about 200 elephants were being killed for their ivory per day!

At the same time, the elephants were being further stressed by loss of habitat as human populations grew and became increasingly urban.

Meanwhile, other ivory-producing animals were similarly hunted and pressured.

Most of this hunting took place in countries with weak governments who were unable or unwilling to stop it. So, in 1973, ten countries decided to deal with the problem from the other end, to cut off demand. They wrote and signed a new international treaty, The Convention On International Trade In Endangered Species, CITES.

Today, CITES regulates the global trade in over 34,000 species of flora and fauna at three different levels of protection.

Until 1990, African elephants were listed in Appendix II of CITES which allowed some limited, regulated elephant ivory trade.

Despite CITES, it is estimated by credible sources that Between 1979 and 1989 poachers killed half of the elephants in the world. In just ten years, the world's elephant population was cut in half! Dishonest traders forged documentation and, with the cooperation of weak governments in need of money, they exploited loopholes in the laws to export and import elephant ivory well in excess of that permitted by CITES. Obviously, without swift action, elephants would have quickly become extinct.

By 1990, over 150 countries, including all of the world's major nations, had signed and ratified CITES and the enforcement requirements of CITES had been strengthened. In 1990, elephants and their ivory were moved to Appendix I of CITES. Listing in Appendix I basically permits no commercial international trade. There are no loopholes to exploit. So, in 1990 the legal global trade in elephant ivory was essentially shut down.

Even before 1990, The United States, while only a minor importer of elephant ivory, passed the U.S. African Elephant Conservation Act of 1988 effectively banning import of elephant ivory into the US. Many European countries also imposed similar bans even before the 1990 CITES changes.

Since 1990, with legal international ivory trade all but shut down and the illegal trade under extreme enforcement pressure, elephant poaching has almost stopped. Thankfully, elephant populations have made remarkable gains. In 1983, it is estimated that 3500 elephants were poached in Kenya. In 1993, that number was just 50.

In fact, CITES protection has been so successful that some African nations are now starting to have problems with elephant over-population! Remember, elephants are huge animals, the largest on land today. An adult elephant eats over 300 pounds (over 135Kg) of food per day! Elephants place a huge strain on the environment they live in.

As a result, there is now some talk of carefully moving elephants from some countries back to Appendix II of CITES and carefully allowing some legal elephant ivory trade. Not surprisingly, there is strong opposition to this and the issue is far from resolved.

Furthermore, many African governments literally have warehouses full of elephant ivory confiscated from poachers, the result of natural and accidental elephant deaths, and the result of good and lawful conservation efforts, heard thinning and management, etc. This raw ivory is worth about $150US per pound (about $68US/Kg). Remember, a single tusk is often over a hundred pounds. There are literally hundreds of thousands of pounds of such ivory sitting in government warehouses. Selling this ivory legally could be a huge benefit for these cash-strapped governments and a great way to help fund continuing elephant conservation efforts. There have already been some small legal sales out of these reserves.

However, none of the ivory from those legal government sales can be legally imported into the USA. Even if elephants were moved back to CITES Appendix II, the U.S. African Elephant Conservation Act of 1988 still prohibits the importation into the US of elephant ivory (there are minor exceptions possible for scientific research etc.).

American knife collectors who purchase knives with elephant ivory from sources outside the US face probabable confiscation of their knives by US Customs when they try to import them. US Customs is very strict about elephant ivory. American knife collectors are also well-advised to keep documentation showing that ivory used in their knives was in the US prior to June 9, 1989.

While no elephant ivory may be imported into the US today (there are minor exceptions possible for scientific research etc.), any elephant ivory in the US prior to June 9, 1989 is legal. There are stocks still available for those who want elephant ivory for knife handle inserts. Be aware, though, that it is expensive.

The U.S. African Elephant Conservation Act of 1988 also prohibits the export of any elephant ivory from the US (again, minor exceptions are possible for scientific research etc.).

Elephants aren't the only animals that produce ivory. Unfortunately most of the others are also endangered and protected much like elephants. But, there are two that are already long extinct: wooly mammoth and mastodon. While these animals are long-extinct, we still frequently unearth well-preserved pieces of their ivory. This material is not subject to CITES or other restrictions. Much of it is actually found in America, especially in Alaska. It can be legally imported to the US and exported from the US. So, it has become a favorite of knife makers.

Here's a common question: How can I tell if it's real ivory? A very practical answer comes from http://www.scrimshawstudio.com:

Ivory is actually the natural tooth of an animal. Teeth continue to grow throughout an animal's lifetime and as a result, they have a noticeable structure and "growth lines" (called Schreger lines), much like a tree's growth rings. Look at the piece carefully under a magnifying glass. Under a 10x magnifier, ivory will have visible striations or grain (called Schreger lines). These lines often show up as diamond shapes on the surface of polished ivory. Bone lacks striations and will appear more uniform across the surface but will show a circular pattern of dots on cut surfaces. These dots are the remnants of tiny vessels that supplied the once-living bone. Resins or plastics have a uniform surface, usually with no striations or dot patterns. However, some manufacturers are now introducing faux ivory with an attempt to reproduce these features.

When looking at a piece, check the bottom for the diamond or cross-hatch pattern typical of real ivory. Then check the sides of the piece for a slight wood-grain pattern. This slight wood-grain is typical of the vertical pattern found on real ivory. Next, check the feel. Real ivory should have a cool-to-the-touch or even a sort of greasy feeling in some cases. Resins or plastics may duplicate one or some of these features, but none duplicates them all.

Also, color often varies slightly (I emphasize slightly) throughout natural ivory from a creamy white to a creamy yellow-tan or a creamy, light yellow-brown, whereas bone and plastics are usually consistent in color throughout.

The next test involves using an inexpensive black light which you can find at most department or home improvement stores. Shine the black light on the piece. Ivory develops a beautiful natural patina with age which shows up as a yellow-brown overall color under normal lighting conditions. Under black light this patina will show up as a dull mottled yellow with an occasional spot of brilliant white where the original surface shows through from wear. Bone, and especially plastics, are often given a patina to simulate ivory’s natural look by soaking the piece in chemicals, manure, or even tea. These usually fluoresce a bright yellow under black light.

You can also take a Q-tip, dip it in alcohol and rub the piece in an inconspicuous area. If the patina comes off and colors the Q-tip, chances are good it's a paint or varnish or some other substance that was applied to give the impression of age.

There is one other way to tell what a piece is made of, but be aware this should be used only as a last resort since it is a slightly destructive test. Take a pin and heat it in a flame. Touch the hot pin to an inconspicuous area of the piece. If it is real ivory it will produce a scorched area which remains smooth. If you are very close when you touch the pin to the piece, you'll notice a smell like a dentist's office. If it is bone it will char a darker black and produce a slight amount of ash. If, on the other hand, it is resin or plastic, the needle will easily melt into the surface and produce "burrs" or small rough areas around the hole. If you are very close when you touch the pin to the piece, you’ll smell burning plastic.

Ivory is a natural material that tends to shrink and expand slightly with changes in temperature and humidity and tends to dry out and sometimes crack with age. Fossil ivory is much less subject to these problems. As a result, ivory inserts in knife handles should be mounted in a way that allows for these slight changes. Cracks in ivory often begin with drilled holes. So, it's best to mount ivory inserts with some other technique. Drying and cracking can be minimized by treating ivory with a bit of mineral oil once or twice a year. Just apply a thin layer to the ivory. Allow it to sit overnight, and wipe the excess off in the morning. Sunlight can further dry and bleach ivory, so ivory pieces should be stored out of direct sunlight.