Ivory: Not Quite Black and White


Rachel Garrahan, New York Times

Date Published
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Fossilized ivory from woolly mammoths, discovered beneath melting ice caps in Siberia and Alaska, has been touted in recent years as an ethical alternative to elephant ivory, a way to deter the continuing illegal trade in tusks that is threatening an entire species with extinction.

Yet with some anti-poaching campaigners working to end ivory consumption regardless of its source, mammoth ivory also is coming under regulation — a situation that the jewelry makers who use it view with concern.

The state of California enacted an almost total ban in July on ivory, including that from elephants, mammoths and walruses, in a bid to prevent illegally poached elephant ivory from being passed off as other varieties. The action followed similar bans in New York and New Jersey in 2014 and went one step further than the United States Fish and Wildlife Service’s recent efforts to strengthen existing laws on the trade in elephant ivory.

(In contrast, the European Union in July issued a position paper opposing a comprehensive global ban on elephant ivory; the existing sales ban expires in 2017.)

The Dutch jeweler Bibi van der Velden said that given the continued demand for ivory in places like China, the use of mammoth ivory could actually help the fight to save the elephant. “It’s very important that we never use an endangered species, but you don’t throw away the baby with the bath water,” she said, adding that bans on mammoth ivory “could end up creating a larger issue.”

Monique Péan agreed. The New York-based designer, known for her ecologically minded creations in recycled gold and conflict-free gemstones, first discovered woolly mammoth ivory on a trip to Alaska in 2006. She said she was attracted to its unique, painterly appearance, an organic effect caused by the minerals that had permeated the ivory over thousands of years.

The pieces “are reminiscent of a Mark Rothko painting and no two pieces are alike,” said the jeweler, whose mammoth ivory designs have been worn by Michelle Obama, notably during a 2010 trip to Mexico.

She began incorporating mammoth ivory into her creations, employing indigenous Alaskans to decorate the ancient material using a scrimshaw technique, in which the ivory is etched and then the pattern highlighted with vegetable dyes.

Ms. Péan, who stopped using the material when the New York ban went into effect, said that she appreciated the serious problems facing elephant conservationists but that she believed such trade restrictions were misguided, since trained customs officials could readily distinguish mammoth tusk patterns, the so-called Schreger lines, from those of an elephant tusk. “While it was well intentioned,” she said, “more research should have been done to see if it would actually help save the elephant.”

Ms. Péan noted that the Alaskan artisans she had employed had also been affected. “The traditional practices have been passed down from generation to generation, and they’re no longer able to live off their trade,” she said.

She continues to work with fossilized materials, including mammoth tooth root, which was not included in the New York ban, and dinosaur bone from the Colorado Plateau that is 156 million to 146 million years old, dating to the Late Jurassic period.

Ms. van der Velden, who has worked with mammoth ivory since 2007, agreed that “there’s no mistaking one ivory for the other.”

Lucy Vigne, an ivory specialist, acknowledged that the Schreger patterns are hard to see in small, finished pieces such as ivory beads, which cannot be easily tested without risk of damage. “Dogs, however, could be trained to recognize the smell of elephant ivory, as opposed to other varieties,” she said.

Ms. van der Velden said her mammoth-ivory jewels were among her best-selling collections. A former sculptor and pioneer for sustainable gold mining, she has developed, with the help of the British Museum, a two-year drying process for fossilized ivory, as it starts to rot on exposure to oxygen.

The New York ban meant that Ms. van der Velden had to withdraw some mammoth ivory pieces from stores, including Bergdorf Goodman and Dover Street Market in Manhattan, as well as from Net-a-Porter’s American online site. She continues to sell pieces elsewhere, however, and hopes the state laws will not be permanent. “It will be interesting to see what happens,” she said. “I hope it’s a temporary decision, but I think it’s not a logical decision.”

Esmond Martin, an ivory researcher who works with Ms. Vigne, said the focus on non-elephant and antique elephant ivory is dangerous as it shifts focus away from illegal poaching and the multimillion dollar international criminal industry that exists around it. The regulations, he said, are “a massive red herring.”

Officials should be concentrating instead on illegal markets in countries such as Angola, where new elephant ivory is being sold, primarily to Chinese buyers, Mr. Martin said, adding that while the United States is the second-largest elephant ivory market in the world, after China, 70 percent or more of the ivory sold there is antique.

Still, the call for a complete international ivory ban has been growing before the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, scheduled to begin Sept. 24 in Johannesburg.

Following a joint pledge with President Obama last year, President Xi Jinping of China is preparing further legislation to try to phase out the country’s elephant ivory trade. Similarly, in May, the French environment minister, Ségolène Royal, announced plans to end France’s elephant ivory trade. This month, the Clinton Global Initiative will announce at its annual meeting Sept. 19 in New York the results of its three-year campaign to reverse the elephant’s decline.

Géraldine van Amerom, the creator of Couleurs de Géraldine jewelry, believes she has another alternative. The French-Dutch jewelry designer began using nut ivory, which comes from the South American elephant palm tree, at her Italian atelier three years ago. “It’s the most beautiful ivory,” she said of the material, which she calls Nuvory. “Why would you even need elephant ivory?”

The designer said she had fallen in love with ivory as a child, playing with the antique carved elephants that her parents acquired during their time as missionaries in Africa.

She spent three years experimenting with Nuvory, which must go through a five-year hardening process, before producing her first pieces, and she hopes that, by drawing attention to Nuvory as a sustainable, compassionate alternative to animal ivory, she can contribute to preservation efforts — not least by donating 10 percent of the profit from Nuvory jewelry sales to anti-poaching organizations including the World Wildlife Fund and the Asian Elephant Foundation.