ivory, type of dentin present only in the tusks of the elephant. Ivory historically has been obtained mainly from Africa, where elephant tusks are larger than they are in Asia, the second major source, and much dead ivory was taken from remains of extinct mammoths found in Canada, Alaska, and Siberia. African tusks of about 55 lb (25 kg) each are common, although tusks of more than 200 lb (91 kg) have been recorded.
In commerce, ivory is classified as live (from recently killed animals) and dead (tusks long stored or on the ground for extended periods and lacking the resilience of live ivory). Ivory may be of a soft or hard variety; the former type is more moist, cracks less easily than the brittle hard ivory, and is easier to work. In the West, soft ivory, obtainable primarily from the eastern half of Africa, was preferred to the hard variety from W Africa. Green, or guinea, ivory denotes certain types of ivory obtained from a wide belt in north central Africa, from the east to the west coasts. At various periods in Africa, native peoples, Arabs, and European colonial powers dominated the trade (now banned) in ivory. Zanzibar, Antwerp, London, and Hong Kong have been major centers of ivory commerce.
Natural substitutes (e.g., tagua, or vegetable ivory) for ivory or near equivalents have long been used. The tooth structure of many other animals, such as the hippopotamus, walrus, narwhal, sperm whale, and wild boar, is also often called ivory.
Uses of Ivory
Ivory is prized for its close-grained texture, adhesive hardness, mellow color, and pleasing smoothness. It may be painted or bleached, and is an excellent material for carving. Large surfaces suitable for veneer are obtained by cutting spiral sheets around the tusk. Commercial uses of ivory include the manufacture of piano and organ keys, billiard balls, handles, and minor objects of decorative value. In modern industry, ivory is used in the manufacture of electrical appliances, including specialized electrical equipment for airplanes and radar.
Its use in art dates back to prehistoric times, when representations of animals were incised on tusks. Objects in ivory were created in ancient Egypt, Assyria, Crete, Mycenae, Greece, and Italy, and there are many biblical references to its use at least from the time of Solomon. Large Greek statues, such as the Athena of Phidias, were made in gold and ivory (chryselephantine), and the Romans made lavish use of ivory in furniture, implements of war, and decorative items. A considerable number of diptychs and panels in ivory, given as gifts primarily by Roman consuls, still exist. Ivory plaques, diptychs, boxes, liturgical objects, book covers, and small statues were made in great numbers from early Christian times until c.1400, but the production of these objects declined thereafter. Ivory carving was practiced both in W Europe and in the Byzantine Empire. In India, ivory carving and turning has been done from ancient times. In China and Japan ivory has been used for inlay and small objects, especially for statues and carvings of small size and great precision and beauty of detail. In the last few centuries in Europe and North America, ivory has been employed to decorate furniture, for small statues, and occasionally as a surface for miniature painting.
The Threat to Elephants
The diminishing number of elephants, to a large extent the result of wholesale slaughter for tusks, and the resulting increased cost of ivory have encouraged the making of imitations and the use of natural substitutes. One strategy for controlling the slaughter of elephants for their ivory is to permit a regulated trade that would reduce poaching and provide profit to Africans, but not deplete the elephant population. A ban of the ivory trade, with some limited exceptions, by countries that supply and consume ivory has been in effect since 1989. Despite this ban, the ivory trade has continued illegally in a number of producing and consuming countries, with demand especially strong in China (where there is a legal and a much larger illegal trade), leading to increasingly devastating effects on elephant populations in the 21st cent. The illegal trade also has contributed to political instability, with rebel groups using it to fund their operations.
The Bible usually designates an elephant's tusk as shen (Heb. שֵׁן, lit. "tooth"), a term indicating both raw and finished ivory (e.g., i Kings 10:18; Ezek. 27: 15; ii Chron. 9:17). In connection with the importation of this item from distant places, the Bible (i Kings 10:22; ii Chron. 9:21; cf. Ezek. 27:15) uses the term shenhabbim (Heb. שֶׁנְהַבִּים), from shen and habbim, plural of hav, possibly from Egyptian bw, "elephant." It is possible, therefore, that shenhav indicates only the raw material. Because it is as rare as it is beautiful, ivory is used in the Bible to personify human beauty. Thus, "your neck is like an ivory tower" (Song 7:5 ); or "his body is ivory work encrusted with sapphires" (ibid. 5:14). Since the use of ivory was limited to the very wealthy, the prophets use ivory as a symbol of great wealth (Amos 3:15). The raw materials were brought to Palestine by land or sea from such distant places as India, Upper Egypt, and, to a lesser degree, from Syria and Libya. Considered of great value – in a class with spices, gold, and precious stones – ivory was used for creating tiny art objects, and small but valuable utensils. Objects of ivory have been found in Palestine in a Chalcolithic cave in the Judean Desert (Wadi Ḥever), and small statuettes dating from the same period have been discovered in the northern Negev. Ivory was used to make pendants, small idols, elegant sheaths for swords, cosmetic vessels, and combs, examples of each having been found in excavations at Megiddo, Ḥazor, Samaria, and Tell al-Farica. Carved ivory was also used as a decorative finish for the walls of houses, especially the interior, and as adornments on furniture. Both uses enhanced the beauty of Ahab's palace at Samaria (i Kings 22:39). Thrones, beds, and other furniture might also be thus decorated (e.g., i Kings 10:18; Amos 6:4). Motifs for designs ranged from geometric patterns and shapes from nature – especially those of animals and plants – to mythology and great feats of heroism.
J.W. Crowfoot and G.M. Crowfoot, Early Ivories from Samaria (1938); G. Loud, The Megiddo Ivories (1939); Y. Yadin et al., Ḥazor, 1 (1958), pls. cl, cli; 3–4 (1961), pl. ccxl, no. 10.
i·vo·ry / ˈīv(ə)rē/ • n. (pl. -ries) 1. a hard creamy-white substance composing the main part of the tusks of an elephant, walrus, or narwhal, often (esp. formerly) used to make ornaments and other articles: [as adj.] a knife with an ivory handle. ∎ an object made of ivory. ∎ (the ivories) inf. the keys of a piano. ∎ (ivories) inf. a person's teeth. 2. a creamy-white color. DERIVATIVES: i·vo·ried / -rēd/ adj.
ivory gate in classical belief, the gate through which false dreams pass; in Virgil's Aeneid, it is said that the spirits of the dead send false dreams to humankind through the ivory gate, and true dreams through the gate of horn.
ivory tower a state of privileged seclusion or separation from the facts and practicalities of the real world; the term is recorded from the early 20th century, translating French tour d'ivoire, used by the writer Sainte-Beuve (1804–69).