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Much Ado about Scrimshaw, part III

by Jack Fritsch

See Part I here, and Part II here.

We began in the last post to take a close look at elephant and walrus ivory. We discussed its characteristics and pointed out its distinguishing features. But that’s just a start. What about whale ivory? Are there other types of ivory as well? How can you tell all these apart from one another? And what about fake ivory?

Most all scrimshaw collectors are especially looking for antique pieces fashioned from Whale Ivory. This is actually the teeth from sperm (or occasionally killer) whales, which grow like all other mammal’s teeth by the laying of concentric strata of dentin beneath the rough cementum seen in unpolished teeth, and a layer of enamel towards the tip. The growth pattern produces a wavy wood-like grain (which can be faint or difficult to see on the surface). The teeth also have relatively deep conical root cavities which often have polyp growths on the surface. Lacking the wonders of modern cosmetic dentistry, whale’s teeth may develop a patina ranging from a light buttercream (why do you think they call that color ivory anyways?) to a fairly deep golden brown (think amber honey rather than a smoker’s smile), and can easily stain from contact with various substances.

The other tusks sometimes used in scrimshaw are much more rarely seen, and are usually identified by their shape and size. A Narwhal Tusk for example is actually formed by a fusion of the two upper incisors on males growing in a spiral. They are prized for their unique helical form. Sailors and craftsmen almost always left these tusks in their natural form and either displayed them whole (typically between five and ten feet long) or used lengths of them for walking stick shafts (or rarely other small objects or applique). The form is the key to identification here.

Wild Boar and Warthog Tusks are the huge protruding canine teeth from these wild pigs formerly ranging through much of Europe, Asia and Africa. They can grow up to seven inches or so long, have a wickedly sabre tooth tiger-ish shape, made even more dramatic by the natural fluting that runs along their length. Their most desirable feature to a craftsman was this wild shape, so once again they were usually left intact and typically used for handles on canes, corkscrews or tools. One might be lucky enough to chance upon a piece made with the much scarcer Tiger’s Teeth, having a similar curved and fluted shape but much smaller and usually having a patina more like a whale’s tooth.

Lastly and most scarce of all there are Hippo Tusks, actually the incisor and canine teeth which grown with tightly packed concentric dentin layers around a central interstitial zone, a thin layer of cementum and a broad band of enamel. They are long (up to ten inches or so), steadily curved as a segment from the arc of a circle, and creamy colored with a very fine, barely discernible grain. These teeth were rarely used because they are incredibly hard, said to be able to strike sparks from steel. When used at all they were almost always left whole, typically as supports for a Victorian dinner gong or handles.

Be aware that these tusks are still legally sold and can be easily worked with modern tools: in fact after elephant tusks they were the most commonly used ivory in the 20th century for producing buttons, handles, inlay and a variety of small applications. If you find objects made with carved or engraved hippo tusks you can be fairly confident (but not positive) that they are not antique.

As if all this wasn’t confusing enough… then there are the synthetics. Clever people have found ways of making synthetic ivory since back in the reign of Victoria Regina. The earliest was no doubt so-called Vegetable Ivory, Tagua and other certain palm nuts whose seeds are the size and shape of hen’s eggs, very hard and solid, and look very much like a smooth, grainless, darkly patinated ivory. Tagua nuts could be polished, carved, engraved, dyed and used like ivory in fashioning a variety of small objects.

Various nitro-cellulose inventions from the 1840s through 1860s culminated in Celluloid, the first proper plastic polymer. This material was moldable, workable and resilient, and quickly became popular for cutlery handles, dresser sets, boxes and more. Celluloid was marketed as French Ivory or other suggestive names, and was often made with a perfect faux elephant ivory grain. After World War II there was an explosion of various polymers, a plastic revolution, and synthetic ivories were variously made with combinations of chemical resins with organic resins, casein (a milk protein of all things), or additions of actual bone or ivory sawdust.

Since the 1970s there has been a proliferation of plastic reproduction scrimshaw made by Artek, Jurotone and a number of other companies. These are not just made of imitation ivory, they are cast in the actual form of whale’s teeth, walrus tusks, panbones or other objects. They are decorated with great scrimshaw inspired images, often copies of some of the greatest examples known in museums. What’s a new collector to do? How can you tell a genuine piece of scrimshaw from these machine-made copies? And most important of all, how can you tell a genuine antique piece of scrimshaw from a later copy or a modern piece of work? Stay tuned…

This excerpt first appeared in Jack Fritsch's blog for Antiques Depot.  Jack is a partner in Antiques Depot, 14 Easy Street, Nantucket 02554  Tel:  508-228-1287