Ivory is generally associated with elephant tusks but ivory actually means teeth, normally teeth that are large enough to be carved or decorated in some way. This post is about jewellery made from elephant ivory but I will discuss jewellery made from the teeth of other mammals soon.
Ivory has been used decoratively for 1000s of years. Elephants roamed the Middle East, China, Africa, India and South East Asia and their tusks were used for a range of objects, often for magical or religious purposes. In Europe, ivory was used almost exclusively for religious items up until the 17th century. More recently, ivory has been used for items like piano keys, billiard balls, miniatures, door handles, boxes, chess sets, and, of course, jewellery.
Elephant ivory is included in Appendix I and Appendix II dealing with species threatened with extinction of CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species). Note that Mammoth ivory can be traded as the mammoth is now extinct. CITES banned all trade in elephant parts in 1989 but the ban was backdated to ivory items worked after 1975. Some member countries have enacted stricter laws. The US, for instance, totally bans the import of African ivory for commercial purposes but will permit limited items that were removed from the wild before February 1976. Exports of African ivory will only be permitted for items over 100 years old. Asian elephant ivory faces stricter rules. Australia has adopted a declaration to place all elephants in Appendix I of CITES and bans the import of ivory for commercial or personal use, except for items for scientific research or with a certificate proving the ivory predates 1975 (or 1977 in the case of African elephants).
National laws do not need to comply with CITES. The International Fund for Animal Welfare conducted a survey of ivory sales in 17 Australian auction houses between October 2014 and June 2015. The survey found that more than 2049 items containing ivory were offered for sale and 78% of lots were purchased.
In the 18th century, there were a few key ivory carving centres. Historically, Paris had a strong ivory carving industry but Dieppe, which was the port into which African ivory was shipped, began to develop carving schools. The jewellery they produced was intricate and delicate. They specialized in crosses and brooches comprised of sheaves of wheat, lily of the valley and bouquets of flowers.
Another jewellery centre was established in Erbach, Germany. It became known for its delicate carved brooches of deer and stags in a forest, for hands, mainly holding flowers, and for roses.
For more information about antique ivory, have a look at Maggie Campbell Pedersen’s book, Ivory, 2015, NAG Press.