Ivory is not art. Except when it graces a living elephant. But vegetable ivory? That’s a different matter.
Yep, you read that right. According to Wikipedia, “vegetable ivory is a product made from the very hard white endosperm of the seeds of certain palm trees.” Six species of palm trees, to be precise, belonging to the genus Phytelephas (“elephant plant”) and occurring in South America. In Peru, the local name for the palm tree is ‘yarina’ (Phytelephas macrocarpa).
The pebble-sized palm ‘nuts’ are harvested manually, or collected from the ground after forest animals have gnawed away the pericarp. The seed itself has a veined, rich brown, outer layer and a cream, off-white, or ivory coloured centre. The thin outer layer may be removed entirely, or it can be creatively incorporated into a carving, for contrast.
Vegetable ivory is attractive, highly tactile stuff and is used to hand-craft buttons, jewellery, figurines, and other ornaments. With time and use, it acquires a glossy, aged patina. The photos are of my pair of elasticated, chunky bracelets (showing the marbling of the outer layer), and my set of key rings and pendants (purchased in Cusco from a local artisan, Christian Rivero Rucoba). My favourite motifs are the gecko and dendrobat frog. The quality of more complex pieces is not always consistent; they should be selected by hand.
The only drawback of plant ivory is that carved pieces are necessarily small, although larger works can be assembled from parts. But this is compensated for by its numerous advantages: it’s relatively cheap (if I remember correctly, a key ring or necklace costs between 10 and 15 soles), it can be dyed (though I prefer it au naturel), it stimulates local economies in South America (sales are said to be booming), and it helps to reduce the demand for elephant ivory. So the more people who know about vegetable ivory, the better.
For more info, here’s a March 2017 BBC article “How an obscure seed is helping to save the elephant.”