Ivory apogists claim it looks incredible. It last forever, they proclaim! But at what cost?
To make elephant ivory or mammoth ivory you need to remove the elephant tusks and that means killing the elephant.
We went in search of kind ivory substitutes and we found a form of vegetable ivory made from the Tagua nut that is far kinder to animals and the planet.
Why Is Elephant Ivory And Whale Ivory Bad?
We repeat: to make ivory you need to kill an elephant.
At one point the elephant was nearing extinction due to the quest for ivory.
Yes, mankind nearly exterminated elephants so that it could have nicer umbrella handles, chess pieces, and piano keys.
Worse, we also turned to the sea for other sources of ivory, and walrus tusks and whale teeth and bones become popular for sources of ivory too and again to get what was needed so that a hot needle could carve decorative items, the animals involved had to die.
The Tagua Nut And Vegetable Ivory
The Tagua Nut comes from Tagua palm trees and the Tagua palms are found, mainly, South America.
South America’s vegetable ivory is made completely from the Tagua Nut. It’s ivory but a form that is completely non-toxic, eco-friendly, animal-friendly, and sustainable.
You don’t have to chop down the tree to harvest the nuts, so there’s no risk of South America suddenly seeing a total deforestation of these palm trees. In fact, when the nuts are harvested they are done so in a way that protects both the rainforest and the animals that live in it.
About Tagua Nuts
Tagua nuts are about 2-3 inches long and they can be up to 2 inches in diameter too. Of course, as with all things in the natural world, there are exceptions to these rules.
They are covered in a spiny outer husk which protects the seed/nuts and there are 4-5 of them in each husk.
The trees on which they are found can grow up to 8 meters tall (that’s about 26-feet for those working in the Imperial system.
If you don’t want to make ivory from them, you can always eat the Tagua nuts which are completely edible (though they have to be held for a while to “ripen” and must be eaten before they become too solid or they will need to be ground into a nut-meal before being eaten).
The Tagua species of palm are most commonly found in Brazil, Colombia, and Ecuador but can be found in other countries too.
The vegetable ivory is fully vegan and can be carved just like bone, scrimshaw, tusks, etc.
Many people call it “palm ivory” due to the nature of the nut that it is made from.
When Did Vegetable Ivory Start Being Marketed?
You may not believe but they’ve known about this wonderful vegan ivory for a long time and, in fact, when carving ivory was at its highest level of demand – in the mid-1800s, there was a thriving trade in Tagua derived ivory products between Europe and South America.
By the time World War 1 started, you could find this kind of ivory in a wide cross-section of different products including in the buttons of soldiers’ uniforms and on their weapons too.
But by the time the Second World War came around, Tagua had been passed over for a brand new material – plastic.
As well all know, that’s not a story that ends well.
The Big Come Back
Since the 1980s there’s been a lot of effort in trying to bring back vegetable ivory to the marketplace.
After all, it has all the upsides of elephant ivory but with none of the downsides.
It looks great, it’s tough and durable and can be used in conjunction with vegetable dye to great effect.
You can make chess sets from it, jewelry, bagpipes, and more.
Sustainability And Ivory
Ivory made from an animal species is not sustainable. But ivory from plants is 100% sustainable.
Alternative plant-based ivory made from Tagua is a great example of how humans can manufacture superior products with raw materials sourced from the natural world rather than plastics or animal by-products.
Final Thoughts On Vegetable Ivory
We love vegetable ivory! It rocks and products carved from it look awesome! Just make sure to use an identification guide if you’re not sure if your carved product comes from nuts or from a walrus. It’s always better to be safe than sorry when you buy ivory.