Ivory is a term for dentine, which constitutes the bulk of the teeth and tusks of animals, when used as a material for art or manufacturing. Ivory is little used today, but has been important since ancient times for making a range of items, from ivory carvings to false teeth, fans, dominoes, joint tubes, piano keys and billiard balls. Elephant ivory has been the most important source, but ivory from many species including the hippopotamus, walrus, mammoth, sperm whale, and narwhal has been used. The word ultimately derives from the Ancient Egyptian âb, âbu "elephant", through the Latin ebor- or ebur.
The use and trade of elephant ivory has become controversial because it has contributed to seriously declining populations in many countries. In 1975 the Asian elephant was placed on Appendix One of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) which prevents international trade between member countries. The African elephant was placed on Appendix One in January 1990. Since then some southern African countries have had their populations of elephants "downlisted" to Appendix Two allowing sale of some stockpiles.
Ivory has availed itself to many ornamental and practical uses. Prior to the introduction of plastics, it was used for billiard balls, piano keys, Scottish bagpipes, buttons and a wide range of ornamental items. Synthetic substitutes for ivory have been developed. Plastics have been viewed by piano purists as an inferior ivory substitute on piano keys, although other recently developed materials more closely resemble the feel of real ivory.
The chemical structure of the teeth and tusks of mammals is the same regardless of the species of origin. The trade in certain teeth and tusks other than elephant is well established and widespread, therefore "ivory" can correctly be used to describe any mammalian teeth or tusks of commercial interest which is large enough to be carved or scrimshawed (Crocodile teeth are also used).