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How to Identify Real Ivory Tusks

Updated July 20, 2017

During the 1700s and 1800s, "manufacturers of combs, buttons, scientific instruments, billiard balls and piano keys demanded an endless supply of elephant tusks," according to the African Wildlife Foundation. Fortunately for elephants, the ivory trade has slowed worldwide since then, which means all newer products that appear to be made of elephant tusk ivory are in fact synthetic, in the 21st century. However, when dealing in antiques, it becomes vital that buyers, sellers and collectors correctly distinguish real ivory from fake ivory or plastics.

Search the surface of the tusk or piece of ivory you are attempting to identify. If it has a dark layer on the outside that is reminiscent of tree bark, the tusk is not elephant ivory. However, this outer layer is the simplest way to identify real mammoth ivory, which comes from China or Japan. Because these tusks are still available and not under the same restrictions as elephant tusks, mammoth ivory is not as coveted as elephant ivory, but will increase in value as the supply dwindles.

Run your fingers along the tusk or piece if it is large enough to do so. If you can feel small ridges, running lengthwise like little fissures or grooves, this is not real ivory.

Look also for small holes or divots in the piece. Bone from any animal is a common substitute for elephant ivory, and the grooves and pitting in the tusk are a sign of natural decaying of bone. Darkened spots or bleached spots are also indications that the item is made from bone.

Use a magnifying glass or loupe, the tool jewellers use to inspect diamonds, to find the grain of the tusk or piece of ivory. Inspect the patterns and lines in the piece. If the ivory is real, you will see thin lines running parallel to one another as well as a pattern with thin lines meeting together at one end to form a letter V. These two distinct patterns will be laid on top of each other, giving the piece a criss-cross look.

Estimate the measure of the angles of the V shapes on the tusk. You may have to use a protractor, but generally that is very difficult with small pieces of tusk. If the angle is smaller than 90 degrees, it is not elephant ivory; it is mammoth ivory. If the angle is greater than 90 degrees, it could be either elephant or mammoth.

Look for signs of age as the final step in distinguishing elephant ivory from mammoth ivory. Elephant ivory will often develop lines and cracks as it ages, which mammoth ivory will lack, as it has been only recently excavated.

Warning

All of these minute differences in lines, cracks, and pits can be confusing at first, and novice collectors will misidentify tusks occasionally. Be sure your seller knows his ivory.

Things You'll Need

  • Loupe or magnifying glass
  • Protractor (optional)
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About the Author

Suzanne Akerman began writing in 2000. She has worked as a consultant at Pacific Lutheran University's Writing Center and her works have been published in the creative arts journal "Saxifrage." Akerman holds a Bachelor of Arts in English and a Master of Arts in education from Pacific Lutheran University.