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What is vegetable ivory and what does it have to do with real elephants?

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Posted June 4, 2019

Ivory is a white-ish hard material, typically extracted from elephant’s tusks or other animal’s teeth. Ivory is basically a dentine: from chemical perspective, ivory of all animals is basically the same. Of course, elephant ivory is a forbidden material due to preservation status of elephants and all the problems associated with poaching and illegal trade. But did you know that there is such material as vegetable ivory? Weirdly, it has nothing to do with either vegetables or ivory.

Vegetable ivory is still used to make luxury buttons. Image credit: AgaKu via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Corozo, corosso or tagua nut – these words describe the same thing – vegetable ivory. It is a material from the seeds of certain palm trees. Vegetable ivory, as you may guess, is called this way because it resembles real animal ivory. It is hard and white and basically used in the same way as real animal ivory. Back in the end of the 19th century vegetable ivory was used to make buttons – in the same way as animal ivory was used. In fact, before a wide-spread use of plastic, vegetable ivory was the material of choice for button production – around 20 % of all buttons in US were made from this material.

Vegetable ivory was also used to make dice, knife and cutlery handles, pens, chess pieces, jewelry and other smaller objects. It is a very hard material, which is impossible to cut with normal knives or woodworking tools. Instead, masters used files and hacksaws – almost as if they were working with stone.

Vegetable ivory is very hard – artists have to use hacksaws, files and other tools typically used working with stone and metal. Image credit: Lombards Museum via Wikimedia (CC BY 3.0)

Nowadays vegetable ivory is mostly used in art, but it is still to this day used to make buttons. Naturally vegetable ivory is almost completely white, but artists or companies usually use dyes to bring out the grain of the material. Dyes do not penetrate very deep, which means that a piece may have a natural colour centre and darker edges. This is one way to tell vegetable ivory buttons from other materials – they usually have a white line in the middle.

Vegetable ivory is made from the very hard white endosperm of the seeds. Seeds regenerate and harvesting of them has no negative influence on the plant. This means that vegetable ivory is pretty much a renewable resource. It is both beautiful and luxurious without being a burden on the environment. This means that it can be used without significant damage to the environment. The only disadvantage is the small size of the nuts that vegetable ivory is extracted from.

Vegetable ivory is a classic material. In fact, you may already own some buttons made from this material. Unlike elephant ivory, vegetable ivory is a luxury you actually can display and tell you friends about.

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