Antique piano keys, scrimshaw, and those weird hooks that grandpa hangs his hat on... they are all made from the solid parts of animals. But what's the difference between ivory, bone, antler, and horn, and what makes some more valuable than others? Ivory, which is dental material from elephants, whales, and walruses, may be valuable because of scarcity due to legal restrictions, but there are other reasons it was once so popular.
Ivory is also valued and appreciated for its structural properties. The layers of dentine within the tusk form a wavy, interlacing pattern (or 'grain'). This offers different surface effects and also gives ivory its strength, making it suitable for long-lasting, detailed carving. An oily substance within the pattern's cavities helps reduce brittleness and give a smooth finish that can be enhanced with polishing to reveal a range of colours from bright white through to shades of yellow-brown. Indian elephant ivory is generally whiter and softer than African ivory. When soaked in warm water ivory expands very slightly making it easier to carve. In China master craftsmen may have used this process to ease the manufacture of the multi-layered 'puzzle' balls, where each ball is a detached layer carved within another, and which together represent principals of Chinese philosophy. The Northwest Coast Style drumstick-head is an excellent example of how the individual characteristics of one piece of ivory have been used to show off the skills and traditions of the Haida people of North America.
Bone, antler, and horn have their own unique properties, and are available from a larger number of species. Read more about these various materials at the Pitt River Museum. -via TYWKIWDBI
(Image credit: Victor H. Billings)