Tuesday, June 4, 2024

How to Tell the Difference Between Ivory and Bone: 8 Steps

Ivory and bone have been utilized for centuries in various crafts, artifacts, and tools. While they may appear similar to the untrained eye, distinguishing between these two materials is crucial, particularly for ethical, legal, and conservation reasons.


Step 1: Understanding the Origin and Composition

Ivory and bone, despite their similar appearance, have distinct origins and compositions. Ivory is derived primarily from the tusks and teeth of elephants, walruses, and other mammals. Its composition is mainly dentin, a dense, bony tissue. Bone, on the other hand, is a structural component of the skeletons of vertebrates and is composed of collagen fibers and minerals. Recognizing that Ivory comes from specific animal parts and bone from the skeleton itself is the first step in differentiating between the two.


Step 2: Examining the Surface and Texture

One of the most telling differences between ivory and bone lies in their surface and texture. Ivory typically has a smooth, glossy finish due to its dense structure and natural luster. When you run your fingers over genuine ivory, it feels cool and polished. Conversely, bone often has a more porous and grainy texture. The pores in bone can sometimes be seen with the naked eye, giving it a less uniform appearance compared to the sleek surface of ivory.

Step 3: Analyzing Color and Aging

The color and aging process of ivory and bone can also help in their identification. Ivory tends to age gracefully, often developing a rich, yellowish patina over time. This change in color is due to exposure to air and light, which causes oxidation. In contrast, bone can vary in color from white to light brown but does not develop the same kind of patina. Instead, bone may show signs of aging through increased porosity or brittleness, rather than a change in hue.

See Also: Can Ivory be Used to Make Jewelry?

Step 4: Observing the Grain Pattern

Ivory and bone exhibit different grain patterns that can be observed under magnification. Ivory has a distinctive, crisscross pattern known as Schreger lines, which are visible when viewed in cross-section. These lines are unique to elephant and mammoth ivory and can appear as concentric circles or intersecting lines. Bone, however, does not have Schreger lines. Instead, it shows a more fibrous and irregular pattern. By using a magnifying glass, you can closely examine the material to identify these telltale grain patterns.

Step 5: Conducting a Hot Needle Test

A practical method for differentiating ivory from bone is the hot needle test. This test should be conducted with caution to avoid damaging valuable items. Heat a needle until it is red hot and gently press it against an inconspicuous area of the material. Ivory is very dense and will not scorch easily; instead, the needle will not penetrate or leave a mark. Bone, being more porous, will burn slightly and emit a faint smell of burning hair due to its organic composition. This reaction helps confirm the presence of bone.

Step 6: Assessing Weight and Density

Weight and density are additional factors that can help distinguish ivory from bone. Ivory is denser and heavier than bone, which can be felt when holding pieces of similar size. This density is due to ivory’s compact dentin structure compared to the more porous and lighter bone. Weighing the pieces and comparing them to known samples of ivory and bone can provide a reliable indicator of their true nature.

Step 7: Using Ultraviolet Light

Ultraviolet (UV) light can be a valuable tool in distinguishing ivory from bone. Under UV light, ivory typically fluoresces a white or bluish-white color, while bone exhibits little to no fluorescence. This difference is due to the distinct chemical compositions of the materials. Using a UV lamp, you can shine light on the material and observe its reaction. This method is non-invasive and can be particularly useful for confirming the identity of antique items.

Step 8: Seeking Professional Evaluation

When in doubt, seeking a professional evaluation is always advisable. Experts in antiques, museum curators, or professional appraisers have the knowledge and tools necessary to accurately identify ivory and bone. They can use advanced techniques such as X-ray fluorescence (XRF) analysis or scanning electron microscopy (SEM) to determine the material’s composition. Professional evaluation ensures a definitive answer, especially for items of significant value or historical importance.


Distinguishing between ivory and bone involves a combination of visual inspection, tactile examination, and scientific testing. By following these eight steps, you can confidently identify whether a piece is made of ivory or bone. Understanding these differences is not only important for collectors and conservators but also crucial in adhering to legal and ethical standards regarding the trade and possession of ivory.

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