Of all the types of beads you can find worldwide, one type that can be found on virtually every continent is bone. For centuries, bone has been a smooth, blank canvas on which artists have carved intricate images & patterns, and due to its prevalence, it has also been a readily-available material with which to create beads! From polished and smooth, to intricately carved, bone beads make an earthy, elegantly natural addition to jewelry.
Over the years, customers have asked us a fairly regular series of questions about our bone beads:
1.) How can you tell the difference between bone and ivory?
According to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, bone is “extensively permeated by a series of canals through which fluid flows.” These canals, known as Haversian canals, appear as pits or scratch-like irregularities, like you can see in the beads pictured below:
Natural, un-dyed bone beads with naturally-occurring pits and blemishes.
Another material commonly mistaken for ivory is synthetic ivory, a.k.a. resin. Like bone beads, resin beads usually possess a “consistent color throughout”; ivory, on the other hand, “is a natural tooth substance that continues to grow throughout the animal’s life. As a result, it has noticeable structure and ‘growth lines’ much like a tree’s growth rings.” (scrimshaw.net) If you don’t see these growth lines, or the pits found on natural bone, then your beads are probably resin.
The bead-makers can do a very convincing job of modifying bone beads to look like ivory ones, most frequently by dying them with black tea to give the beads a browned/antique look, accentuating any ridges and inclusions to simulate “growth lines.” The older the beads look, the easier it is to convince a customer that what they’re looking at are ivory beads. However, chances are that if you’re shopping somewhere that features “ivory” beads at only 50¢ to a few dollars each, they’re not made of real ivory.
Tea-dyed bone beads. Photo courtesy of BestBobs on Etsy.
If you believe the beads you have ARE ivory, you can once again refer to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service‘s website, which contains incredibly detailed information about tons of different types of ivory, including: elephant, mammoth, mastodon, walrus, sperm whale, killer whale, narwhal, hippopotamus, wart hog, natural substitutes (vegetable ivory), and synthetic substitutes. They claim that “the easiest way to tell definitively (though a tad bit destructively!) whether the piece you have is ivory — if you can’t find the ‘growth lines’ — is the ‘hot pin test’. Heat a pin to nearly red hot and touch the tip to an inconspicuous part of the object. If it is ivory, it will scorch and smell like burning bone (a dentist’s office smell).” If it is a synthetic material, such as resin or polymer, the pin will melt into the piece, and smell like plastic burning.
These “synthetic ivory” beads are made of a high-quality resin, complete with imitation “growth lines.”
2.) Where do bone beads come from?
When we asked our vendors about what type of bone their beads were made of, they were very proud to tell us that their beads are made from the bones of either service animals/ “beasts of burden,” or bones locally sourced from a rendering plant. When a working camel or buffalo reaches the end of its life in Egypt or elsewhere in Africa or the Middle East, locals ensure that as little of the animal goes to waste, and that includes its bones. The same goes for cows bred for beef; bones from a rendering plant that aren’t ground up into bone meal (for pet food and farm animal feed) can easily be cleaned, polished, shaped, and drilled into beads.
Large bones, such as buffalo bone, often have a lot of marrow to clean out. To fill the void, many of these pieces are filled with wood, then drilled to create beads like the one pictured here. Photo courtesy of naturebeads.com
3.) These days, isn’t ivory illegal in basically any form?
Let’s say you have a necklace that you have now identified as containing ivory beads. Would it be illegal for you to sell it? Is it illegal for you to even HAVE it? According to well-respected scrimshaw artist Mark Thogerson, “the quick answer is no. The more involved answer is that the level of restriction depends on the type.” If your cherished family heirloom is made from mammoth ivory or mastodon ivory, you’re in the clear: these types of ivory “carry no restrictions because they are from extinct animals.” Wart hog, hippopotamus, and “Rocky Mountain Ivory” (the small canine teeth of an elk) are also unrestricted.
Custom-made pendant using elk ivory set in sterling silver. Photo courtesy of rockymountainscrimshaw.com
However, importing ivory from African elephants into the United States IS ILLEGAL (per the CITES treaty), but selling existing elephant ivory within the United States IS NOT ILLEGAL. If you inherited a piece of ivory jewelry from your grandmother and decide it’s not your style, a jeweler specializing in estate jewelry would probably be happy to add it to his/her collection!
Some more interesting ivory legal facts, courtesy of scrimshaw.net:
* Sperm whale teeth can be bought and sold LEGALLY via interstate commerce only by people with U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service permits; however, they can be sold from person to person as long as the transaction is not across state lines.
* All other marine mammals are considered “protected” under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Whole walrus tusks can only leave Alaska if they are genuine native artwork or have special clearance; partial tusks must be tagged by the Alaska Fish and Game Dept.
* Also according to Thogerson, the only strictly illegal ivory he is aware of “is Indian elephant; this animal is considered endangered because there are few truly wild ones left.”
Customers have also expressed concern regarding the ethics surrounding antler beads and pendants. Luckily, “antler ethics” are much easier to explain than the gray area surrounding ivory: as naturebeads.com explains on its website, the antlers they use to create their pendants (pictured below) “are collected in the mountains of Colorado from naturally shed elk and deer antlers, [a phenomenon] that happens every spring after mating.” Obviously people may object to beads and pendants made from antlers sources from an elk or a deer that was killed solely for that purpose, but shady sources such as those are rare in the beading industry. If you are concerned, we highly recommend visiting your trusted local bead store and staying away from creepy people selling beads & pendants in dark alleys!
Pendants made from naturally-shed antlers. Photo courtesy of neaturebeads.com.
We hope you have found this blog post informative! We understand there are artists who prefer not to use animal byproducts (bone, leather, etc.) in their work for personal reasons, but for those who do enjoy using natural materials in their pieces, we hope you are now more confident in your bone/ivory/antler bead decision-making. Happy beading!
Check out more tips & tricks in identifying beads of different materials:
Part 1 – Turquoise
Part 2 – Amber
Part 4 – Coral