Though ivory has multiple uses and looks beautiful, elephants and other animals used to be killed simply for their ivory. Ivory is actually the tusks and teeth of select animals including hippos, whales and walruses. Telling ivory apart from bone and synthetic materials is simply a matter of knowing what to look for. Do not purchase any ivory pieces until you are sure of what you are looking at, and keep in mind that the buying and selling of elephant ivory is illegal.
Observe the colour of the piece. Genuine ivory yellows with age, so the darker yellow the ivory, the older it is. Some dealers may try to dye ivory pieces to make them look older than they actually are, so test the ivory by rubbing a saliva-soaked finger over the piece. If the yellow comes off on your fingers, it is not antique ivory or even real ivory.
Study the item carefully using a magnifying glass or jeweller's loop. If the piece appears porous or has little streaks, the piece is bone and not ivory.
Perform a knocking motion on the piece. Real ivory and bone are heavier than plastic and celluloid, which will sound much more hollow than ivory and bone.
Observe the piece under very strong lighting. Look for a wavy or "cross hatch" pattern, and if you see such a pattern, turn the piece 90 degrees and look again. If it is real ivory, you should not be able to see the pattern after turning the piece. It should also have a pearlescent appearance under the lighting.
Light a stick or safety pin with a match or lighter until red hot. Place the pin on the piece in question. If the ivory is real, no mark should appear once you remove the pin. Bone and plastic will receive burn marks.
Look for round balls inside the crevices and holes of some ivory pieces. These balls are residue left from a mould, indicating you are holding synthetic ivory.
Elephant, mammoth, Tagua nut, hippo and other animal ivory each have their own characteristics. For example, hippo ivory and Tagua nut both have the same type of grain patterns, while hippo ivory is also heavier than mammoth and Tagua nut with small, brilliantly white patches.