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Basic Information

Ivory is a hard, whitish material derived from the teeth or tusks of a variety of animal species. Probably the best known source - and the most desired in terms of quality and size - comes from the tusks of the elephant, but narwhal "horn", walrus tusks and the teeth of hippopotami and sperm whales are all common sources as well. Presumably various mythological creatures might be found good for ivory as well.

Being relatively easy to carve, but hard enough to hold detail well, ivory is a popular choice for anything requiring fine detail engraving - seals being a good example, but also pieces of decorative artwork and jewelry. In the pre-plastic era, a variety of things that would later be made from plastics were made from ivory, from cutlery handles, combs and billiard balls to musical instrument parts (notably piano keys). Historically it was also much used for making dentures. Ivory is also quite easy to form into airtight containers and so served for storage of a variety of rare and important things - incense, spices and relics for example. Decorative ivory can either retain the shape of the source material (such as the heavily detailed elephant tusks often used as display pieces) or be cut into almost any practicable shape. The Ancient Greeks were also fond of chryselephantine - a combination of gold and ivory, particularly used in the making of idols and other religious statuary.

Scrimshaw - decoration of (usually whale or walrus) ivory with surface carvings - was a popular hobby amongst sailors (especially whalemen) and a form of folk art in many cultures. This could extend into some extremely intricate carvings and full blown sculpture.

"Vegetable ivory" is an ivory substitute carved from the innards of certain palm nuts, which have a hard, tight grained structure which is difficult to distinguish from the general article.

"Hornbill ivory" is a similar substance formed from the bony casques of some species of hornbill.

It is also possible that a civilisation might, for a time at least, trade in ivory from long dead creatures - as, for example, some real world arctic communities do expediently when they find mammoth ivory buried in the ice, or a civilisation with access to an elephant's graveyard might.


1. full source reference

Game and Story Use

  • Demand for ivory did massive damage to the African elephant population - easily translatable into your campaign.
  • Can serve as a "treasure" for random animals of the correct type.
  • A demand for ivory - for magic for example - may need a specific species.
    • Even more fun in the modern era with the trade in ivory highly restricted.
  • A confusion between vegetable and regular ivory could lead to all sorts of nonsense - for example, an archipelago of tropical islands exporting a vegetable ivory to a market that cannot tell it from the regular kind might attract all manner of people looking for their secret elephant farms.
    • Alternatively it might spawn a mythical animal like the "sea-sheep" said to be responsible for byssum or the "vegetable lambs" from which cotton was sheared. These might, in turn, spawn mythagos.
    • The "mythbusters" are likely to claim that it is, in fact, whale ivory or some similar product. Possibly expecting whales with tusks like a narwhal.
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