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A Brief History of Ivory

and the

Development of the Art of Scrimshaw

Ivory and the use of ivory has existed for thousands of years. Early mankind used ivory, whether mammoth, mastodon, walrus or elephant, to make utensils for various purposes such as scraping hides, needles, bowls, etc. These were used for every day life and rarely decorated.

As time passed other materials were found for these common every day chores and ivory was looked upon in a different light. People began to carve ivory. Though the first carvings were primitive ivory became an object representing wealth.

Intricacy of carving ivory was accomplished as implements for carving improved. Basic stone such as flint, obsidian and other hard stones were chipped to create a sharp edge and this was used to carve the ivory. With the introduction of metal knives and chisels the primitive carvings became much more intricate.

Ivory was very plentiful in many areas of the world and because it had become a symbol of wealth it was in very high demand. The Far East produced massive amounts of carved ivory pieces. Many very intricately carved, unique masterpieces. Eastern civilization expressed itself in objects of luxury where ivory was combined with semi-precious and precious materials which are prized by collectors and museums today.

The French and other European countries also developed art forms using ivory. Statues of ivory, chalices, bowls and many others objects were very intricately carved and displayed. Many were used in religious ceremonies. A lot of the ivory that has survived that is quite old has been preserved in monasteries.

Sailors on whaling expeditions could obtain walrus and whale ivory that could be fashioned into objects of value which they made for the English tourist trade.

Ivory was also used for more practical items such as piano keys, cane handles, billiard balls, toilet sets (brushes, mirrors, combs, etc.) and other accessories. These were in high demand in Europe and in American cities.

While the carving of ivory and the use of ivory has developed over many thousands of years the art of Scrimshaw has developed only in relatively recent years.

Scrimshaw is an art form that dates back over 200 years to the whaling days of New England. Accepted as one of the most important Folk Arts of our American history Scrimshaw had almost died out in the 20th century. Today, this art is being perpetuated by a handful of tireless artist who, in the manner of old, toil for hours to create pieces of unique beauty.

Using only a sharp pointed tool and India ink, American whalers of the 18th and 19th centuries intricately etched scenes of the voyage and the hunt on a variety of ivories. Almost all of the scenes depicted were of ocean going vessels, and things to do with the sea. Themes Scrimshawed on ivory can vary to almost anything; people, wild life or buildings. Western themes depicting Indians, cowboys, and gunfighters are very popular in America today, as well the desert and wildlife.

In some stores, especially in the western states, you can find "scrimshaw" in abundance and extremely cheap in price. BUYER BEWARE! If you see cheap "scrimshaw" very possibly you are seeing items that have been "laser etched". These are produced in mass quantity and all look alike because they are machine made. If you look closely you can tell which are laser and which are actually hand-made Scrimshaw. Put together several items with the same picture (possible on different things; a knife, a belt buckle, a necklace, etc.) If they are all the exact same, maybe different in size only, you know that you are seeing items that are laser etched. Another way to tell the REAL THING from laser etching is to look at the size of the etch marks. The free-hand old world way of doing Scrimshaw will have varying sizes of lines or dots and some will be lighter or heavier than others. Machines donít have the ability to reflect this very human touch. If ever you get a chance to see a scrimshander at work you will see what Iím talking about, and have an enjoyable time in the process.

All of my Scrimshaw pieces are the result of painstaking free-hand etching, crafted in the same manner as it was during the Golden Age of Whaling.

I hope you will come and visit my site often. I will be posting new pictures from time to time.

Artist: Twyla

 

 

 

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