Identifying Ivory

At a recent gun show, there was a disagreement between two dealers as to whether a sword had a genuine ivory grip. While this was going on, one of our readers suggested that we put together a primer on identifying ivory...and as you know, the customer is always right, so here we go.


Elephant ivory is so attractive, so easy to work with, and so pure in its color that it has been a favorite of craftsmen for centuries. However, since elephants live in remote places and tend to resist radical dental work, ivory has always been expensive outside of India and Africa. And when trade routes were disrupted by war, the supply could become cut off. So there has long been a desire to find less expensive materials that have the same essential qualities of ivory without the inconvenience or cost. All kinds of tusks, teeth, bone, and even compounds formed from nuts and milk saw extensive use — with mixed success.

The billiards craze of the 19th century placed a new emphasis on this search. Ivory was the only product at that time that could be carved into a ball shape while remaining durable enough to withstand the rigors of the game...and the demand for billiard balls exceeded the ivory supply. The invention of plastic was, to some great extent, driven by the desire to find an alternate material for making billiard balls. But these synthetic imitations were quickly employed for all sorts of other useful purposes, including the decoration or restoration of collectible weapons. This trend has only accelerated with the success of international bans on the modern ivory trade.


So how do you know when you are handling real ivory?
Ivory handle revolver
With practice, you should be able to tell almost instinctually...blindfolded, even. (Ivory has a greasy feel and is strangely cold to the touch at room temperature.) But rather than getting bogged down in the art of psychical ivory readings, let’s start with something more tangible, like its appearance. Ivory is formed by growth rings — just like trees. Think of a pile of traffic cones stacked on top of each other and you will get the general idea. When ivory is worked, these rings are cut through, creating a distinctive oak-like grain. So we want to see that grain...not a pure, solid color. Imitation ivory often tries to copy this grain, but they never seem to get it random enough or even very organic looking. Also, and this is important, when ivory is cut across the grain and then polished, it should show a feature called Schreger Lines — a unique pattern of crosshatched diamond shapes that some collectors refer to as “stacked chevrons.” If you see Schreger Lines, this is a practically surefire indication of true ivory from either an elephant or a mastodon (i.e., prehistoric mammoth harvested from frozen carcasses, usually in Siberia). Bone doesn’t have this pattern, nor does any other kind of tooth or tusk from animals either alive or extinct.

Modern imitation ivories made from polyesters or epoxy resins are sometimes manufactured by bonding countless thin sheets of plastic in an attempt to created the appearance of Schreger Lines, but the pattern will be simplistic and repetitive; the angles will be too consistent and the pattern a lifeless plaid. Once you have seen genuine Schreger Lines, you are unlikely to be fooled. If you have trouble finding them, try using a 10x magnifier. Note that elephant ivory and mastodon ivory can often be told apart by differences in the average angles formed by their Schreger Lines — but from a collector’s point of view the differentiation doesn’t matter much unless you want to bring the piece overseas and need documentation for the customs agents.

So by now you should know whether you have real ivory or not. But suppose you want to be extra certain? What else can you do to make sure you are not looking at an especially convincing synthetic imitation? Well, you go to a home improvement store and buy an inexpensive ultraviolet (UV) “black light” of the kind usually found only in tacky gift shops, discotheques and the bedrooms of particularly disgruntled teenagers. It doesn’t matter much which kind you get...flourescent is my favorite choice but simple incandescent bulbs work fine, too, and there are even special UV flashlights that are used to identify fake licenses and counterfeit money. There is also a growing hobby (and believe me, I wish I could say I was making this up) where guys who apparently have too much time on their hands hunt scorpions in the desert at night using UV flashlights — because scorpions apparently glow in the dark under UV light — and there are even specialized “scorpion hunter” flashlights and web pages where the brave trackers share videos of their bravest exploits. And our wives think we are wierd?

But getting back to ivory, what you want to do is shine the light down on your item and observe its color. Note that UV lights work best in a totally dark room and that it isn’t good for your eyes to stare straight into the light source. Pretty much all natural bone, tooth and tusk (including ivory) looks yellow or white under UV light and glows a bit with a slightly fluorescent appearance. It won’t be as bright as modern white paper, fabrics, paint, etc., but it will stand out from other objects in the room. Synthetic imitation ivories generally absorb UV light, rather than fluorescing, and they will have a dull purple/blue appearance. Keep in mind that just like viewing these materials in normal light, the synthetics will usually appear much more solid and consistent in their colors under UV illumination than organic substances like ivory and bone. Note that mastodon ivory will sometimes exhibit bright purple stains called vivianite, but these would be random blotches and not a solid color over the whole object.

If for some unknown reason you are still uncertain, there is another test...but I don’t recommend it because it damages the object. You heat the tip of a sewing needle red hot and stick it into the “ivory” in an unobtrusive place. Ivory or any of its organic cousins like bone will fight back and the needle will give off a burning tooth smell that will remind you of the last time you had a cavity drilled at the dentist. If it’s a plastic imitation of ivory, the needle will go right in and a pungent burning plastic smell will be produced.

Well, now that we know that the ivory is real, how do we determine whether it is actually antique and doesn’t date from last week? First, we look at its color. Ivory starts out white and slowly acquires a yellowish patina over time. New ivory is sometimes stained to give the appearance of antiquity using liquid solutions made from tea leaves or tobacco juice. Viewing ivory with our new UV light can also sometimes give us hints about its age. Brand spanking new ivory, freshly cut, generally glows bright lavender...not that dull color of plastic imitations but a truly intense fluorescence. Older ivory, having acquired a patina, will achieve the white/yellow appearance described earlier. If ivory breaks, the exposed wound will usually look like newer ivory, creating a contrast in those areas. Individuals wishing to make new ivory appear old have been known to treat the surface by smoking it with burning pine needles or storing it with rotting meat in order to achieve the desired appearance under UV light — so your mileage may vary.

Well, that is probably more than you ever wanted to know about ivory...so let’s talk about bone for a minute. There’s nothing wrong with bone...lots of classic firearms, knives and swords were mounted with bone handles, and it could look quite attractive when carved and polished properly. Since so many old weapons use bone as an ivory substitute, get to know its identifying features. Instead of Schreger Lines, bone has what is called a Haversian System — a series of tiny canals that once carried fluid through the bone when it was alive. When bone is cut or polished, this Haversian System is exposed. Under magnification, these canals look like pits or scratches; they are very distinctive and won’t be found on any kind of ivory. They also tend to fill with filth over time, making bone much more likely to stain than ivory or any of its imitations. But if it turns out that your sword has a bone grip instead of an ivory one, please don’t spend too much time being concerned about that. It really doesn’t matter very much in the grand scheme of things.

--Stuart C. Mowbray, editor of Gun & Sword Collector magazine