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Q: Bone vs Ivory ( Answered 5 out of 5 stars,   1 Comment )
Subject: Bone vs Ivory
Category: Reference, Education and News > Consumer Information
Asked by: groendog-ga
List Price: $10.00
Posted: 30 May 2005 18:09 PDT
Expires: 29 Jun 2005 18:09 PDT
Question ID: 527479
Two questions under the guise of one: How long ago did it become
illegal to sell Ivory AND: I have acquired a necklace, very old, that
has some figures on it. The seller assured me it was bone, and it
probably is, but is there some way I can tell whether it is, in fact
bone and not ivory? (I want to take it apart and re-cycle it and sell
it again, so I need to know.)
Subject: Re: Bone vs Ivory
Answered By: clouseau-ga on 30 May 2005 20:00 PDT
Rated:5 out of 5 stars
Hello groendog,

Thank you for your question.

The US act that made Afican elephant ivory illegal was enacted on October 7, 1988.


16 U.S.C.  4201-4245, October 7, 1988, as amended 1992. 

Overview. The purpose of the Act is to perpetuate healthy populations
of African elephants. The Act authorizes financial assistance for
African elephant conservation programs; requires review of these
programs and establishment of moratoria on ivory import if specific
criteria are not met; requires annual reports to Congress; creates
criminal and civil penalties for illegal ivory import or export;
exempts sport-hunted elephant trophies; and allows for payment of

You can read the entire document here should you desire:

You will note repeated mention of CITES. Findlaw defines it as:

"...the term ''CITES'' means the Convention on the International Trade
in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora;
(3) the term ''CITES Ivory Control System'' means the ivory quota and
marking system established by CITES to curtail illegal trade in
African elephant ivory;..."

You will also note there are some exceptions noted:

"...Prohibitions and Penalties. Except for sport-hunted elephant
trophies, it is illegal to:   import raw ivory from any country other
than an ivory producing country; export raw ivory from the U.S.;
import raw or worked ivory that was exported from an ivory producing
country in violation of that country's laws or of the CITES Ivory
Control System; import worked ivory, other than personal effects, from
any country unless that country has certified that the ivory was from
legal sources; import raw or worked ivory from a country under a
moratorium. Violation of these provisions is subject to criminal and
civil penalties. The Secretary, the Secretary of the Treasury and the
Secretary of the department in which the Coast Guard is operating are
charged with enforcement..."

Since ivory has been used in musical instruments as well as jewelry,
you will find stockpiles of pre-CITES ivory around as well as
altenatives that are legal. This site about bagpipes mentions
interesting alternatives:

"...ELEPHANT IVORY is, unfortunately, a touchy political issue. Of
course we abhor the depletion of remaining elephant herds, but,
honestly, no synthetic material has the look or feel of the real
thing. We do have available from our supplier stocks of pre-CITES
treaty African elephant ivory for pipe mounts. Unfortunately for all
concerned - particularly the elephants - the CITES treaty has done
little if anything to prevent poaching and the elephant herds are just
as depleted as they were eleven years ago. In 1997 the Kenyan
government publicly burned over fifty TONS of ivory, all confiscated
from poachers over a three year period - imagine how much was actually
smuggled out of the country during that time.

Legal elephant ivory is terribly expensive, but, if you have a set of
pipes with damaged ivory mounts that need replacement, we can do it.
If you're interested in obtaining ivory replacement mounts, please
contact us for a price quote. I guarantee the price WON'T be pretty -
remember, it is not only illegal to import new ivory into the US (it
must have been taken before 1989, according to the CITES treaty), it
is also illegal to SELL or TRADE elephant or walrus ivory of ANY kind
in several states - including California (tell that to all the import
shops in Chinatown). So...your best bet is:

An alternative material relatively new to bagpipes is MASTODON, or
MAMMOTH IVORY, which is a by-product of mining in Russia (vhat are
they minink??? Who knew? I mean nu?), and is also found in Alaska.
Less expensive than elephant ivory, it is still pricey, but completely
LEGAL for export or import into the US, as it is a 'fossil' and not an
endangered species (I'll say!). Mastodon ivory is beautiful, and
slightly darker than elephant ivory, with an ecru or dark cream colour
rather than the near-white of new elephant ivory. It has the same
appearance when turned through the 'eye,' or center of the tusk, with
the distinctive interlacing or 'lamellae' characteristic to pachyderm
tusks, called 'Schreger lines.' I've worked this material myself, and
it is lovely to turn - and expensive! It's painful to see all the
waste material flying off the turning gouge when you work it, but
that's the nature of the business!"

OK, now how to tell bone from ivory:

"...But how do you tell what is Ivory and what isn't, especially if
only viewing an image on the Internet. Hopefully this will help.

The most likely imposters are Bone and Plastic ( Resin ) To test for
plastic, the easiest and most common method is the pin test. Heat a
pin to red-hot and touch it to the bottle. If it melts, its plastic.
If it doesn't melt, we narrowed it down to Bone or Ivory. There should
be no fear of damaging the piece using this method because Ivory will
be undamaged by this test, and if it melts, it wasn't worth much

Now comes the tough part. You have determined that it is not plastic.
So it must be bone or ivory. The coloration of Ivory is usually very
consistent throughout the entire piece. ( no light and dark patches )
It has a very fine grain that appears in a wood grain pattern. Black
cracks ( age lines ) are not uncommon in very old pieces of Ivory.
Bone, on the other hand, tends to have numerous discolorations and
distinct feature. Patches of Brown or Black spots resembling a beard,
or dark blotches consisting of parallel lines. Another potential clue
is that most bone items are made using 3 to 4 pieces of bone. Look for

And a site on Mahjong Tiles:

How to Identify What Your Tiles Are Made Of

by Sandy Beach
?...Bone is often mistaken for ivory. Bone tiles will usually show
somewhere, even if only a few tiles, the Haversian system found only
in bone. This is the remnants of the vascular system of the bone
structure, and usually shows up as small pores, often darkened with
decayed organic material. The Haversian system may also show up as
streaks on the tiles. Ivory does not have this system, so any
indication of the Haversian system is a strong indication of bone. If
in doubt, assume the sets are bone, not ivory. There is a good
economic reason for this, as well: when these sets were made in the
1920s and 1930s in China, China was in dire economic straits in its
ongoing conflict with Japan. It is very doubtful that ivory could have
been afforded or imported during that time.
TEST: Visually look for signs of the Haversian system in ALL of the
tiles of the set -- in high grade bone sets, this may be difficult to
find and using a 10x hand lens is helpful...?

?...TEST: A visual inspection of ivory under strong light will usually
reveal some of the tusk structure. The most definitive pattern is
described as looking like "stacked chevrons" or a "cross-hatch"
pattern somewhere in the tile (often at the edges), barely seen as the
tile is turned in strong light. Other patterns are wavy (indicating
the layers of the tusk).

TEST 2:  From the "Antiques Road Show"-- If you see the curvy/wavy
pearlescent grain from one direction, then rotate the piece 90
degrees, you will NOT be able to see the grain. (That's what makes it
pearlescent.) The appraiser considered this definitive, but I haven't
tried it. [Tom says: I have, and I can confirm that this is an
accurate indication of ivory. The wavy pearlescent grain and
cross-hatching are called "Schreger lines," after Bernhard Schreger,
who described them in 1800. Do a google on "Schreger lines" to learn

ALso see this page for more tests and pictures: 

Here?s another good page for identification techniques:

?How do I tell if something is made of ivory, bone or an ivory
substitute (plastic or resin)?

Ivory is actually the natural tooth of an animal. Teeth continue to
grow throughout an animal's lifetime and as a result, they have a
noticeable structure and "growth lines" (called Schreger lines). Look
at the piece carefully under a magnifying glass. Under a 10x
magnifier, elephant and mammoth ivory will have visible striations or
grain that often show up as diamond or "V" shapes or cross-hatching on
the surface or edges of polished ivory. Bone lacks such noticeable
striations and will appear more uniform across the surface. Under
magnification bone usually shows circular or oval shaped dots on cut
surfaces. These dots are the remnants of tiny vessels that once
supplied the living bone. Resins or plastics have a uniform surface,
usually with no striations or diamond or "V" patterns, however some
manufacturers are now introducing faux ivory with an attempt to
reproduce some of these features.

When looking at a piece, check the bottom or sides for the diamond or
cross-hatch pattern typical of real ivory. Then check again for a
slight wood-grain pattern, this is also typical of real ivory. Next,
check the feel. Real ivory should have a cool-to-the-touch feeling.
Resins or plastics may duplicate one or some of these features, but
none duplicates them all.

Also, color often varies slightly (I emphasize slightly) throughout
natural ivory (more variable in mammoth) from a creamy white to a
creamy yellow-tan or a creamy, light yellow-brown, whereas bone and
plastics are either consistent in color throughout, or their color
variations may be extreme, especially in stained or colorized resins
and plastics.

The next test involves using an inexpensive blacklight which you can
find at most department or home improvement stores. Shine the
blacklight on the piece. Ivory develops a beautiful natural patina
with age which shows up as a yellow-brown overall color under normal
lighting conditions. Under blacklight this patina will show up as a
dull mottled yellow with an occasional spot of brilliant white/blue
where the original surface shows through from wear. Bone, and
especially plastics, are often given a patina to simulate ivory?s
natural look by soaking the piece in chemicals, manure, or even tea.
These usually fluoresce a bright yellow under blacklight. When using
an ultraviolet lamp, regardless of the appearance or chemical
composition of the manufactured ivory substitutes, they all share a
common identifying characteristic. When ultraviolet light is shined on
manufactured ivory substitutes that do not have an artificial patina
they absorb the ultraviolet light exhibiting a dull blue appearance.
Ivory, without a patina, on the other hand, has a white/blue
florescent appearance...?

There is more good reading here. And many other pages that discuss
techniques for identification. Just click this link to re-run my
search if you like.


Search Strategy:

ivory +illegal +date
cites +ivory
ivory +bone +identify OR identification

I trust my research has provided you with answers to both questions.
If a link above should fail to work or anything require further
explanation or research, please do post a Request for Clarification
prior to rating the answer and closing the question and I will be
pleased to assist further.


groendog-ga rated this answer:5 out of 5 stars and gave an additional tip of: $15.00
Above and Beyond the Call: You have eased my mind as to the substance
on these figures: it is NOT Ivory, nor is it plastic. I did not want
to sell something illegal, however ignorant I might be. Thanks!! (Also
fascinating reading!!)

Subject: Re: Bone vs Ivory
From: clouseau-ga on 30 May 2005 21:51 PDT
My pleasure to have searched this for you. Thank you for the rating
and generous tip!

Best regards,


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