Saturday, June 8, 2024

Does ivory crack over time?

Ivory, with its rich history and undeniable beauty, has long been a coveted material for various art forms and functional items. However, the longevity and preservation of ivory pieces are subjects of significant concern. Over time, ivory can indeed crack, and understanding the reasons behind this and how to prevent it is essential for conservators and collectors alike. This article delves into the characteristics of ivory, its susceptibility to cracking, the factors contributing to its deterioration, preventive conservation measures, restoration possibilities, and the ethical and legal considerations surrounding its use.


Characteristics of Ivory

Ivory is derived primarily from the tusks and teeth of elephants, but it can also come from other animals such as walruses, narwhals, and hippopotamuses. The structure of ivory consists of dentine, a dense, calcified tissue that forms the bulk of the tusk. This material is valued for its smooth texture, fine grain, and capacity to hold intricate carvings.


Physical Properties

Ivory is composed mainly of hydroxyapatite, a crystalline calcium phosphate, and organic materials like collagen. These components give ivory its unique properties: it is hard and dense yet somewhat elastic, which allows for detailed carving. The coloration of ivory ranges from creamy white to a yellowish hue, and it often develops a distinctive patina over time due to exposure to light and handling.

Aesthetic and Cultural Value

Ivory has been used throughout history for various purposes, from practical items like combs and chess pieces to high art in the form of sculptures and inlays. Its cultural significance spans continents and civilizations, making it a material of immense historical and artistic value.

Susceptibility to Cracking

Despite its durability, ivory is prone to cracking, particularly under certain environmental conditions. Cracking is primarily due to the material’s natural response to changes in its surroundings.

Intrinsic Factors

Ivory’s organic and inorganic components react differently to environmental changes. The collagen fibers can shrink or expand with humidity variations, while the crystalline structure of hydroxyapatite remains relatively stable. This differential movement creates internal stresses that can lead to cracking.

Types of Cracks

There are several types of cracks that can appear in ivory:

Surface Cracks: Fine lines that appear on the surface, often due to gradual drying or exposure to light.

Deep Cracks: These can penetrate through the thickness of the ivory and are often a result of significant environmental stress or mechanical damage.

Checks: Small, parallel cracks that are typically caused by rapid drying or fluctuating humidity levels.

Factors Contributing to Deterioration

Several factors can accelerate the deterioration and cracking of ivory. Understanding these factors is crucial for effective conservation.

Environmental Conditions

Humidity: Ivory is highly sensitive to changes in humidity. High humidity can cause swelling, while low humidity can lead to shrinkage and cracking. The ideal relative humidity for ivory is typically between 45-55%.

Temperature: Extreme temperatures or rapid temperature changes can also cause ivory to crack. Stable, moderate temperatures are ideal for its preservation.

Light Exposure: Ultraviolet (UV) light can cause the organic components of ivory to deteriorate, leading to brittleness and cracking.
Prolonged exposure to light, especially direct sunlight, should be avoided.

Handling and Use

Mechanical Stress: Frequent handling or use of ivory objects can introduce mechanical stress, increasing the likelihood of cracking.

Display and Storage: Inadequate support or improper display conditions can also contribute to stress and damage. Objects should be stored in a stable, supportive environment, ideally with controlled climate conditions.

Biological Factors

Pest Infestation: Insects such as dermestid beetles can damage ivory by feeding on the organic components. Regular inspections and preventive measures are essential to protect ivory from pests.

Preventive Conservation

Preventive conservation involves measures aimed at minimizing the risk of damage to ivory objects. These measures are crucial for preserving the integrity and appearance of ivory.

Environmental Control

Climate Control: Maintaining stable temperature and humidity levels is paramount. Using climate-controlled display cases or storage rooms can help achieve this.

Light Management: Limiting exposure to light, particularly UV light, can prevent deterioration. Use UV-filtering glass and keep lighting levels low.

Handling Procedures

Minimize Handling: Reducing the frequency of handling can decrease the risk of mechanical damage. When handling is necessary, wear gloves to prevent oils and dirt from transferring to the ivory.

Supportive Display: Ensure that ivory objects are adequately supported during display. Avoid placing them under direct light or in environments with fluctuating conditions.

Monitoring and Maintenance

Regular Inspections: Conduct regular inspections to detect early signs of damage or pest infestation. Early intervention can prevent minor issues from becoming major problems.

Cleaning Protocols: Cleaning should be done cautiously and infrequently. Use soft brushes and avoid harsh chemicals that can damage the surface.

Restoration Possibilities

When ivory does crack or deteriorate, restoration may be necessary. Restoration should be approached with caution to preserve the object’s integrity and historical value.

Techniques and Materials

Filling Cracks: Fine cracks can sometimes be filled with appropriate materials such as conservation-grade wax or resins. This process requires precision and a deep understanding of the ivory’s properties.

Surface Cleaning: If the surface has accumulated dirt or grime, gentle cleaning with mild solutions and soft brushes can help restore its appearance. Avoid abrasive materials that can scratch the surface.

Reattachment: In cases where pieces of ivory have broken off, reattachment might be necessary. Adhesives used should be reversible and compatible with the ivory’s material.

Ethical Considerations

Restoration should always aim to retain as much of the original material and appearance as possible. Over-restoration can lead to a loss of historical integrity and value. It is essential to document all restoration efforts for future reference.

See Also: Can Ivory be Used to Make Jewelry?

Ethical and Legal Considerations

The use of ivory is fraught with ethical and legal implications, particularly due to the conservation status of elephants and other ivory-producing animals.

Conservation and Wildlife Protection

Legal Restrictions: Many countries have enacted laws to protect endangered species, including bans on the trade and use of ivory. These laws are designed to combat poaching and ensure the survival of species like elephants.

CITES: The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) regulates the international trade of ivory. Collectors and conservators must be aware of these regulations to ensure compliance.

Ethical Sourcing

Provenance: Ensuring that ivory has a documented history and was obtained legally is crucial. Provenance research can help trace the origin of ivory and verify its legal status.

Alternative Materials: Due to ethical concerns, many artisans and conservators are turning to alternative materials that mimic the appearance and properties of ivory. These alternatives can provide a sustainable option without compromising artistic integrity.

Public Awareness

Education: Raising awareness about the ethical and legal issues surrounding ivory can help reduce demand and support conservation efforts. Educating collectors, artists, and the general public is vital in promoting ethical practices.

Advocacy: Supporting organizations and policies that aim to protect endangered species and promote sustainable practices is essential. Advocacy can play a significant role in driving change and ensuring the protection of wildlife.


Ivory, with its unparalleled beauty and historical significance, is a material that requires careful consideration and stewardship. Its susceptibility to cracking and other forms of deterioration makes preventive conservation and responsible handling essential. When restoration is necessary, it should be undertaken with a commitment to preserving the object’s integrity and historical value.

Moreover, the ethical and legal considerations surrounding the use of ivory cannot be ignored. The protection of endangered species and the enforcement of international regulations are critical in ensuring that the legacy of ivory does not come at the expense of wildlife conservation. By understanding and addressing these complex issues, we can ensure that ivory objects continue to be appreciated and preserved for future generations.

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