As I looked over past posts, I realized I've never talked about why ivory is so valued all over the world. So in this post, let's look at why the tusks of elephants are some of the most coveted objects on earth.
Ivory is considered a very fine material, both by carvers and by consumers. Its cultural and religious value can be seen in many Eastern cultures, and its artistic qualities are revered all over the world. But ivory is also a great material to work with. It's smooth qualities make it easily carved, which is why we see stunning pieces of art with intricate designs made out of tusks. But while the ivory trade has become a hot topic in recent years, the market has been around for hundreds of years.
History of Ivory Trade
Ivory has always been a coveted, costly and rare material. Since Roman times it was reserved for fine objects made to the highest standards. Ivory was, and still is, ranked with gold, jasper, amber and diamonds in worth, and only those objects that the wealthy would use were made from ivory, since they were the only consumers capable of paying for them.
In the 1500s and 1600s religious objects were made of ivory, especially small sculptures or human figures. Meanwhile, in the Eastern nation of Japan, ivory was carved into belt ornaments, and China was exporting products to the West in ivory boxes and cases.
As technology advanced and transportation methods improved, Africa became more accessible. This meant that ivory was more easily obtained, and therefore more commonly used in the market. Most materials made from ivory contained large amounts of it. These are among the finest quality works of art, and also include gold, jade, turtle shell and silver.
Many European products, especially religious items, were made entirely of ivory. In fact, up until right after World War II, various fine pieces contained varying amounts of ivory, including jewelry, clocks, guns, knives, games pieces, fans and furniture. Some of these were mass produced in the millions, and are the items that sell for $100,000 to $1 million each in modern markets.
Most of these objects, made specifically for Western tourists, were similar to those of the 1800s. They were mass produced by the millions after World War II, exported from Asia, especially Japan, whose income relied on international trade. Most of the objects made after World War II contained smaller amounts of ivory, such as violins with ivory bows, pianos with ivory keys, knives with ivory handles and coats with ivory buttons. However, several American servicemen brought ivory trinkets home with them, a trend that continued through the 70s. Because the items were mass produced, ivory was commonly used in Chinese manufacturing, done in factories.
Most of the ivory products for sale today are relatively inexpensive, unless they contain great amounts of ivory or are large pieces. Ivory carvings are especially popular, done by masterful artists, and can catch a fair price, because they give the illusion that ivory is still rare. While there are genuine ivory antiques, most of the pieces on the market today were recently obtained by killing elephants and taking their tusks.
It is important to note that an international ban was placed on the sale of ivory and ivory products in 1989, making all post-ban ivory illegal. However, there are masterful ways to mask modern ivory as pre-ban ivory, which can make it hard to regulate. In one study, which used Cincinnati as a sample market, the amount of ivory products sold in 2013 was estimated to be between 10,000 and 15,000. It's estimated that the number of truly high-quality antiques is small, only numbering in the hundreds of thousands. But the number of ivory trinkets is much higher, around 20 million.
According to Lark E. Mason, a New York antique appraiser, "A large portion of the American population owns objects that contain ivory and endangered species materials." While Mason's estimates point to the US's place as the second-largest market for ivory in the world, he predicts that taking away these objects would severely hurt the art and antique economy, taking away billions from their business over a period of time.
While this information could spark the debate of whether losing millions of dollars is more important than the millions of elephants we've lost in the last 50 years, I shall not go there at this time. The point is that ivory has become such a solid and influential part of global trade that it will be difficult to eliminate without supplementing the income in other ways. But as anti-ivory efforts continue to grow and more governments get involved in the conversation, I hope to see wise and effective management of the earth's resources, because while ivory is considered priceless, live elephants are even more so.
The information for this article came from Lark E. Mason's "The Scope of the Antique Ivory and Endangered Species Market in the United States," published in April 2014.
Kerry Skiff is a conservation advocate and recent journalism graduate of Northern Kentucky University. She follows the ivory trade around the world, and uses her voice to educate Americans about their role in animal conservation.