Ivory canes

Canes are made from a great variety of materials, from almost anything that grows including woods of all types from the four corners of the world, and other materials such as ivory and bone. Inorganic materials such as glass and metal are also found in great numbers. The stick maker was limited in his material choices by availability and imagination alone!

I have several ivory handled canes in my collection; see subheadings under this category. It can be difficult and confusing to distinguish ivory from bone, antler or horn, made easier if the handles are carved from the tusks and teeth of animals such as elephant, walrus and whale. I have carefully tried to identify the type of ivory from which my handles are made, with the help of my 16x loupe.

In his book, Ivory, Geoffrey Wills separates ivory into several categories including elephant, fossil, hippopotamus, walrus, narwhal, sperm whale, hornbill, vegetable and synthetic ivories. All in their natural state share a white or creamy color (unless stained). I will very briefly discuss only two, elephant and walrus, as they are the most commonly seen in antique canes. For more information on ivory or scrimshaw, check your library or the internet, as there are many books and websites offering more detailed information. I have also included some reference links below, in the body of this article.

Elephant Ivory
Elephant ivory is distinguished by its translucent crosshatching as seen on cross-section, called Schreger lines. Cut lengthwise, these lines appear triangular or diamond-shaped. Also look for subtle translucent surface striations (I use a 16x loupe for easier viewing). It is a fine grain with an even, geometric appearance. See below for more information.

The crosshatching or Schreger lines in elephant ivory form angles greater than 115 degrees. If you look at the section nearest the center, you will see that the angle is much tighter than 115 degrees in this area.
Age lines as shown above do not detract from the value of a piece of ivory. Some even prefer pieces with age lines as it provides instant confirmation that the piece is old elephant ivory from long before the ban. The ivory in the picture above is about 150 years old.

Walrus Ivory
Walrus ivory often has a marbled or webbed pattern on finished pieces. It is easier to identify when both the outer or enamel layer, which is dense and white, and the inner, dentin layer, which has a honeycomb or tapioca-like appearance, are visible. See below for more information.

Early figural ivory Cane, ca. 1780. L-shaped walrus ivory handle carved with a dog head at the front, Malacca shaft and a brass ferrule. The bold proportions of the handle and naive depiction of the canine lend the cane a humorous personality and also makes of it best folk art. It also takes advantage of an untouched original condition and a great patina and decorative surface wear both grown over two hundred years of age. Height: 3-¼” x 1-¾”, overall length 29 ¾”.
Note crystallized, honeycomb or tapioca-like appearance of the ivory.

Although it is fairly easy to distinguish between complete teeth and tusks, pieces are much more difficult to identify, and it is suggested that careful study of the cross-section of a piece of ivory under a microscope, comparing with known samples, and finally careful study of many samples, is necessary before a level of familiarity is reached.

I have a copy of the Guide for Ivory and Ivory Substitutes researched by Edgard O. Espinoza and Mary-Jacque Mann of the National Fish and Wildlife Forensics Laboratory, who wrote this 35 page book with the goal of developing a visual, and nondestructive way for wildlife agents to distinguish ivory types. 

How to tell ivory from bone1
Ivory is made from the tusks and teeth of elephants, whales and other animals. It is highly valuable, in part because it is now illegal to procure ivory from some sources, such as elephants. Artists and manufacturers have used faux ivory to create carvings and other products with a look and feel quite similar to ivory, but there are ways to identify true ivory if you know what to look for.

1. Look for ivory’s signature texture and color. Hold the piece in your hand and feel its weight. Ivory feels heavy and dense when you hold it in your hand. Think of the weight of a billiard ball, which ivory has been used to make in the past; when you hold one in your hand, it feels sturdy and solid. If the item in question feels strangely lightweight, you can eliminate the possibility that it’s ivory.

Bone can have the exact same weight as ivory, so just because the piece feels solid and heavy doesn’t mean it is indeed ivory.

If you’re unsure whether the item feels appropriately solid, weigh it, then compare its weight to similar items that you know to be ivory. The internet is a great resource for finding the dimensions and weight of ivory items.

2. Run your fingers over the item to feel its texture. Ivory is said to be as smooth as butter. It’s not as soft, but in the right hands it’s almost as easy to carve. If the surface of the piece feels rutted and pockmarked, it might not be ivory. If it feels unbelievably smooth, you may have ivory on your hands.

3. Examine the item’s patina and surface through a loupe or magnifying glass. It’s not always possible to tell for sure whether an item is ivory by looking under a magnifying glass, but doing so should provide good clues. Real ivory is lustrous and beautiful, often with a slightly yellowish hue. It can also take on a brownish patina caused by the oils of those who have handled it over the years. If you see spots or other odd markings, though, it probably isn’t ivory. Look for the following identifiers:

  • Crosshatched lines. There should be parallel lines (with slight irregularities) running along the length of the item. Perpendicular to these should be circular or V-shaped lines known as Schreger lines. These are found in all elephant and mammoth ivory.
  • Does the surface have multiple darkened dots or pits? If so, this is a very good indicator of its being bone. In some cases the bone has been bleached, though, so keep performing other tests to be sure.
  • All bone has the telltale flecks of marrow, or tiny notches, in the surface. These may not be visible to the naked eye, but you should be able to see them through a magnifying glass. Ivory tends to be smoother, harder, and not pitted.

Hot pin test
Heat a straight pin. Hold it over a candle flame or a lighter flame for a few seconds until it gets quite hot. You can use any piece of metal, but a pin is a good choice since you don’t want to create a mark on the item you’re testing.

Hold the pin to the surface of the item. Choose a discreet spot so you don’t end up leaving a mark or a dent (although if the item is ivory, this won’t happen).

Smell the place where you touched the item with the hot pin. If the item is ivory, it should have no scent that wasn’t there before. If it’s bone, it will smell faintly of burning hair.

True ivory will not get damaged by this experiment, since it is hard and strong enough to resist the heat. However, if the object you’re testing happens to be made of plastic, the hot needle will make a slight dent. Since some plastics (such as Bakelite) have as much or more value than ivory, you may not want to try the hot needle test until you know for sure that what you have is not plastic.

Of course appraisal by a reputable antiques dealer, one who specializes in ivory, is always an option. Check online.

To leave absolutely no question about the composition of your ivory or bone item, take it to a forensics lab and have it chemically tested by a scientist. The cellular structure of ivory is different from that of bone, but lab equipment is required to determine which is which with finality.

For more information on the differences between elephant and mammoth (fossil) ivory, see http://www.asianartmall.com/schreger-lines.htm.

Another excellent source of information from Ruby Lane Antiques is found at: https://www.realorrepro.com/article/Ivory-genuine-fake–confusing. 

For information on elephant ivory under statute, regulation, or law enforcement discretion, visit the U.S. Fish & Wildlife-International Affairs website and carefully read through the article entitled, What Can I Do With My Ivory? https://www.fws.gov/international/travel-and-trade/ivory-ban-questions-and-answers.html

1. http://www.wikihow.com/Tell-Ivory-from-Bone

For antique cane and walking stick enthusiasts