The Fall and Rise of Eco-Ivory


Brace yourself. I’m just about to suggest you try wearing ivory.

Vegetable ivory, that is – from the tagua or ivory nut, found in South America. It’s a near-perfect match for the hard, creamy polished animal dentine that we have such a destructive relationship with – and that’s the key to the tagua nut’s success. Mammal ivory is indelibly associated with appalling cruelty and its continued widescale use is morally unacceptable. But the market for it remains, because ivory itself is a beautiful and useful material. To rid the world of the barbaric trade in animal ivory, we need to replace it.

Tagua nuts fit the bill nicely.When dried out, the endosperm or kernal of the nut becomes extremely hard, tough enough to be polished and intricately carved. It’s a sustainable local craft that’s been around for hundreds of years, but the development of cheap plastics hit it hard and left the ivory palm (Phytelephas Macrocarpa) unsupported in the threatened rainforests of South America.

Now it’s plastics that are languishing, and vegetable ivory artisans are seeing renewed interest in their products – from all the traditional ivory products (chess pieces, for example) through to jewelry and animal sculptures that draw on strengths unique to tagua ivory: its rich susceptibility to dyeing, and its equally fabulous shell that can be polished until it’s glassy.

This time, let’s make sure vegetable ivory is here to stay.

A selection of distributors:
Artisan Life – makers of products including this fabulously colorful ringed bracelet.
Tagua Nut Ivory‘s huge range of beads.
Pueblito‘s necklaces, bracelets and earrings.
Jewelry available from One World Projects.
The exotic Palma Collection.

Image: Palma Collection

Mike Sowden

Mike Sowden is a freelance writer based in the north of England, obsessed with travel, storytelling and terrifyingly strong coffee. He has written for online & offline publications including Mashable, Matador Network and the San Francisco Chronicle, and his work has been linked to by Lonely Planet, World Hum and Lifehacker. If all the world is a stage, he keeps tripping over scenery & getting tangled in the curtain - but he's just fine with that.