Antique Jewelry Case (ca. 1890-1910). Two lift-out trays and original key.

Isn’t this adorable?

Okay, maybe not NOW, but once upon a time, this was a very smart, black Moroccan leather jewelry box. And it’s my latest find.

It came complete with its two original…

…lift-out trays…

…and a surprisingly large amount of storage for something so compact…

The box also came with its original key. It’s a bit old and grimy, but the lovely, green velvet and silk linings are both in spectacular condition. And the box and both trays are in excellent structural condition.

A box like this features storage for chains, bracelets, cufflinks, earrings, a small pocketwatch (the circle on the top tray), rings (the two ring-grooves either side of the watch-hole), and much more besides!

I’ve no inkling who the maker is, but it’s in stunning condition for something over 110 years old!

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Posted by on August 16, 2015 in Antiques


Vintage Sewing Endeavor – A New Bag

I know this blog hasn’t been updated in over a month. That’s what happens when real-life affairs take precedence over online activities. From family events, looking for work and writing other stuff, I haven’t had much time to write much for here.

Well today I do.

I don’t drive. Never have, never will, can’t do it. Eyesight won’t allow it. Joy of joys. This greatly limits my mobility obviously, and I gotta rely on lifts from friends, public transport of questionable reliability, and a good pair of shoes. It also means I need a good bag. One that’s strong and which lasts. I don’t have the luxury of hauling half my house with me, dumping half of it in the car, taking what I choose, and then walking off somewhere and coming back later to get something else if I forgot. When I go out, I have to take everything I need with me, in one bag. This means that the bag has to be a decent size, good quality, and strong!

…What a pity that most of them aren’t.

In five years, I’ve had three bags, and they’ve all proved unsatisfactory in one way or another. They rip, they tear, they wear out, they fall apart…

I was so fed up with it that I decided to try and make my own bag. I researched fabrics and looked up designs online to try and figure out what my eventual bag would look like. I found a fabric warehouse in town which sells huge rolls of fabric to the public. They’re surplus from clothing-factories and they sell it off at so many dollars a square meter.

I showed up and got myself a healthy supply of denim fabric. I picked denim because I wanted a bag that was – first – blue, and – second – strong! Leather dries and cracks and flakes. And cotton just rips apart. I would’ve used canvas but I couldn’t find any, so I decided that denim would do as a suitable substitute.

I’ve never been much of a sewer, but I learned the basics from my grandmother – how to fold raw edges, how to sew seams, how to cut buttonholes and sew them by hand. How to measure, how to cut, how to make seam-allowances, and so-forth. I only do this stuff occasionally, so I’m still learning, but I felt that I had enough skill to try and make something which I would be comfortable using in public and carrying around. And so, I set to work.

Measurements and Calcuations

Before I did any cutting, the first thing I did was sketch what the bag would look like. I drew up a rough diagram and penciled in measurements on how wide, long, deep and high I wanted it, how many pockets, what the over-flap would look like, and so-forth. Now that I had the chance to make my own bag, I wanted to try and do it as best as I could. It wouldn’t look THAT professional, but still, I had a plan.

If you ever make a bag for yourself, like I did, one important thing to keep in mind with measurements is to decide what you’ll be putting in the bag, and to have those items near you when you’re doing your measurements. Measure the items you intend to put in the bag (laptop, iPad, umbrella, dead body, whatever…) and then proportion the bag accordingly so that whatever you put in will be housed securely and neatly. My big issue with a lot of my older bags was that they weren’t big enough to hold my bulkier items without compromising by chucking out other things which I might’ve needed. I was determined to make it and shape it to fit in everything I wanted.

Cutting the Fabric

To cut the fabric, I used my grandmother’s 8in. WISS tailor’s shears from the 50s. To get accurate measurements, I used one of those big, old-fashioned folding rulers made of wood, which have the measurements in inches. A modern plastic ruler warps and bends too much to be reliable when you’re cutting massive amounts of fabric. And this old wooden ruler extends to three feet long! More than enough for what I needed!

To try and minimise screw-ups, I measured how big I wanted the bag to be, then measured again, adding on extra inches, for seam-allowances, folding raw edges and for errors in my own calculations. To give the bag as much strength as possible, I used as few pieces of fabric as I could, and which pieces I did use, I tried to make them as big as possible.

The bag has eight pieces of fabric.

The first, huge piece was about a foot and a half wide, by three feet long. This gave me enough space to fold over the edges half an inch or so, to make space for mistakes, if there were any. The body of the bag is deliberately made of one big piece of fabric. The fewer seams there are, the fewer things there are to rip and tear, and the longer it’ll last.

Next came two side-panels for the end-walls of the bag. Then came pockets.

The bag has two pockets at the front, one big one at the back, two interior pockets, and one side-pocket for pens. I also cut extra red velvet fabric to act as a partial liner inside the bag, and some of the pockets. I didn’t have enough velvet to line the entire bag, so I just did the key areas. On top of that, I cut extra fabric for stuff like buttonholes, straps and so-forth.

Assembling the Bag

To put the bag together, I used my antique Singer:

My 1936 Singer Sewing Machine. A V.S. 128 model.

Friends have asked me questions about this machine for years.

“How do you use it?”
“Does it work?”
“How do you control it with only one hand?”
“Does it sew through thick fabrics?”
“Aren’t you scared about breaking it?”

The answers are:

“Yes” (although, not leather).
“No. It lasted this long, it’ll last a hell of a lot longer!”

I prefer using this machine to a modern one for all manner of reasons. It’s easier to set up, it’s much easier to operate, it’s HIGHLY portable and it’s forgiving of your mistakes!

The great thing about a manual sewing machine is that you can set it up literally ANYWHERE, regardless of light, space, and of course, whether or not there’s a power-outlet nearby! You just plonk it on the table, open it up, thread it, and sew!

The other great thing is that, since it IS a manual machine, you, yourself, decide how fast, or how slow, this machine is going to run. Not some electric motor with a gummy power-pedal which is as fidgety as a spooked stallion. This machine can go as slow and as fast as you want. Give it enough speed and a long-enough run-up, and it’ll punch through four, six, even eight layers of denim with no problems at all!

Because I can directly control the machine, I can decide precisely how to use it. I can run it at a snail’s pace if I’m doing something delicate, or as fast as I can turn the handle, to finish a seam. For someone with poor eyesight, it’s good to know that I can operate it slowly and precisely, when I need to get close and personal to my work and make sure that everything is lined up properly, instead of sewing my hands together!

Sewing the Components

Using my Singer, I sewed all the seams and lining and pockets, and then pieced everything together.

It’s easier to work with pieces and piece pieces to pieces and then put it together. That is, it’s easier to do that, than build the bag up, and THEN try and tack extras onto it like pockets and loops. It’s better to build up each component with all its necessities, before building the bag itself. That way there’s nothing leftover at the end to vex you! Some elements were easier to do than others, but I’m glad to say that about 90% of the sewing for this bag was done on my old Singer. The only hand-sewing I did was to sew on the buttons for closure, and to cut and sew the buttonholes by hand (I didn’t trust the sewing machine to stitch in the buttonholes reliably with its buttonholer-attachment, which has failed before now).

There was a time where I had considered sewing in a zipper or two on the bag, but in the end I decided to leave that to another project. I’d rather stick with what I knew for this project, and try that another time. I was much more comfortable with buttons and buttonholes, and I didn’t want the bag to be too ambitious, and screw it up at the last minute! That said, the button-closures I did make have worked very well!

I made the buttonholes vertical instead of horizontal. This would, I hoped, prevent the fabric from tearing from constant opening and closing. At the front of the bag, I made denim tags and sewed rope loops into them, to act as buttonholes, as I reckoned these would last longer than ordinary buttonholes, since they would be opened and closed more often than others. I used large, brass buttons instead of plastic ones. Plastic cracks and breaks and brass is stronger. To sew them in place, I used string instead of thread, so that they wouldn’t snap or wear out easily.

Attaching the hardware came next. To do that, I used more spare denim to cut tabs for holding down the D-rings for the shoulder-strap. I made everything here double-thickness and sewed everything back and forth, over and over at least two or three times on each side, since they would be taking the entire weight of the bag on just two points. I wanted to make sure that everything was secure.

When sewing, I used navy blue thread. I wanted a thread that matched the colour of the denim as near as possible. Admittedly, this was to camouflage my own deficiencies in sewing. If I was better Might’ve used white thread, but I didn’t want any mistakes or obvious screw-ups to stand out. And at any rate, I doubt anybody would be looking closely enough to really care. In the end, this was the result:

The Finished Bag:

The finished bag. The canvas and leather strap came from one of my previous bags which was falling apart.

The back of the bag with a three-button closure on the back pocket. I originally wanted to use brass snaps, but they weren’t strong enough.

One of the D-rings for attaching the strap.

Considering that this is my first real attempt at something like this, I’m pretty pleased at how it turned out, although the proof of quality will be in how long it lasts! We’ll see!

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Posted by on August 4, 2015 in Antique & Vintage Sewing Machines


Victorian-era Aide Memoire – Solid Ivory

A recent discovery of mine, and one I never thought that I would ever be lucky enough to own! But here we are.

I love anything old which is connected to writing. Pens, pencils, desks, writing slopes, desk accessories, writing accessories…the list is almost endless. And for a long time I’d wanted one of these things. But I never got the chance. That is, until now…

This thing is pocket-sized. It’s almost exactly the same size as a Zippo cigarette lighter. It’s the same width and the same height, and half the thickness. But what is it?

Manufactured from the mid-1800s to the turn of the century, this is called an Aide Memoire. They are meant to be pocket-sized weekly planners. The majority of the really old ones are made of ivory, such as this one…tortoise shell…or in later models…celluloid, which was much cheaper.

The average aide memoire is comprised of a front and back cover, and six or seven sheets of ivory, all riveted together through one pivot-point, and held shut by a clasp at the top. The sheets inside are headed with the days of the week, usually Monday through Saturday (although examples did exist with Sunday included).

Aide Memoires are fairly rare. One reason is their fragility. The sheets of ivory are sliced extremely thinly, and this makes them prone to cracking, chipping and breaking. The leaves of ivory in this example are perfect and are without any serious damage or defect, but they’re so thin that light passes through them!

Aide memoires came in a variety of styles. What you see here is kind of the basic style. There were other variations which had silver plaques on the front (for engraving initials), pencil-slots down the side, for holding the pencil, ones with tortoise-shell or sterling silver covers and ones with rings or hooks added to the pivot-point rivets, so that they could be attached to chatelaines worn by women.

How Do You Use an Aide Memoire?

You never write on an aide memoire in ink. The ink stains the ivory and it cannot be easily washed off. Aide memoires are designed for use with pencils. In an age before a portable, self-filling writing instrument (a fountain pen) was available, people used dip-pens. As these needed their own external ink-supplies (inkwells or ink bottles) they couldn’t be used on the move. Pencils, with their own interior supplies of graphite, could be used anywhere.

To prevent wasting paper, people who could afford it, carried aide memoires around. Notes and to-do lists could be written inside the aide memoire in pencil, and then at the end of the week, the graphite marks could be easily erased using a damp cloth.

Aide Memoires varied in size. Some were larger than this, some were smaller. This one’s probably approaching the smallest practical size. I did see one smaller one in an antique shop once, which about half the size of this, which is absolutely insane!

The Aide Memoire opened and fanned out, on the right. On the left, a standard ZIPPO cigarette lighter.

The largest aide memoire I’ve ever seen was at a flea-market. It was about the size of a pack of playing cards. It was something I’d dearly love to own, but the price was just out of my reach…that, and one of the ivory sheets was cracked and chipped! If I was going to spend that kind of money, then I expect things perfect!!

Anyway, just wanted to share this little gem :)



Posted by on June 11, 2015 in Antiques


S. Mordan & Co. Sterling Silver Dip Pen & Pencil Set w/Original Box. Ca. 1880.

You do find the craziest things when you have to run errands on terrible days…

In preparation for a family reunion, I’d been running myself ragged for two weeks, buying food and cooking ingredients and all other manner of things to prepare for the big day ahead. It didn’t help that the weather lately has been absolutely GHASTLY. Raining nonstop, blowing a hurricane and freezing cold almost incessantly.

I had to go to another suburb to pick up a fresh gas-cylinder for my home-carbonation kit, along with a whole heap of other things. The weather was patchy and rainy all day…Oh God…

To make the most of a bad situation, I stopped in at one of the several charity shops in the area (there’s three or four of them, all within a few blocks of each other) to look around.

In one of these shops was a very dark case inside a display-cabinet. Inside the case were something long and thin and shiny.

At once my interest was piqued.

I thought the items to be not worth much – items in charity shops rarely are. Anyway, I asked to have a look. They were removed from the cabinet and presented to me…

…inside the case was…

“Are they silver?”
“Maybe…I dunno. There’s no hallmarks on it”.

I had a look and sure enough…no hallmarks.

But there was a name. A manufacturer’s name. Hidden in amongst the forest of engraving.

“S. Mordan & Co”.

My heart went flitty-flutter…

I’d heard a friend of mine talk of this company, once or twice, a few years back. But I couldn’t quite remember why she found it so interesting. I suspected the set might be worth something…they thought it was junk. Cheap stuff not worth bothering about…but I decided to take a chance.

They were on sale, anyway, I noticed. There were two prices on the tag. And I got a bit confused, until the guy who showed me the set explained that the second price meant that they’d been reduced. I snapped up the set and carried it home. Today, I sent an email to my aforementioned friend and she sent a reply, dating the set to the 1880s or 1890s (which lines up with the research I did) and said that they were almost certainly sterling silver, since S. Mordan & Co didn’t start making silver-plate pens and pencils until the 1910s.

I think I need to sit down for a minute…

What’s the significance of S. Mordan & Co?

Well…S. Mordan is Sampson Mordan Snr. He lived from 1790 until 1843. He’s the man who invented the propelling pencil. The great-grandfather to every mechanical pnecil in existence today.

As a result, anything bearing his name in the writing world can carry a hefty value along with it…Wow!!


Posted by on May 14, 2015 in Antiques


10kt Gold Victorian-era Infant Ring. Ca. 1870-1890.

Sometimes, you find the niftiest stuff at charity shops! I picked up this little gem today:

I’ve researched it, and asked jewelers about it, and compared it with other examples online. It’s been tested by a reputable auction house and the conclusion of all, is that this is a stunning example of a Victorian era baby’s ring (probably a pinkie ring)!

It is intended for use by infants and toddlers. It is absolutely tiny! I can’t fit it onto my pinkie-finger, and my hands are pretty small. Something like this was probably a present to a newborn or to a baby on its first birthday. The ring is certified 10kt gold, and the star settings are red garnet, and seed pearls, as can be seen here:

The ring dates to the second half of the Victorian era, probably between 1870-1890. I’ve never seen one like it before, but examples online which closely resemble this ring all state that they are baby’s rings, and that they are usually 10kt gold. I consulted a jeweler friend of mine (if you’re reading this, you know who you are! Thanks!), and he said that it was common for 10 & 15kt gold to be unmarked in the period before Australian federation (which was 1901). Since this ring is Victorian in date, that makes a lot of sense.

I’m so amazed to own this thing! I just had to share it :)


Posted by on April 29, 2015 in Antiques


Restoring a Victorian-Era Double-Hinge Writing Slope

I’ve often been told that if you restore an antique, you ruin its value. Not a belief that I have ever wholeheartedly followed. Mostly because it varies significantly on a case-by-case basis. A slipshod, half-assed restoration can destroy an antique. A careful, loving restoration can increase an antique’s value significantly. The difference is knowing when to restore something, and whether your actions could damage the item irreparably.

Take for example, this item:

I purchased this during a day-trip down the coast. It’s a very, very battered late-19th century gentleman’s writing-box. I bought it because I’d never seen a box of this style with this type of metalwork on the lid before. As far as old writing-boxes go, it was very cheap, and I daresay if I hadn’t bought it, it would’ve been thrown out as a useless bit of old tat, sooner or later. I figured that if I did buy it, then I could restore it and use it as my own personal writing-slope. I didn’t want to use any of my nicer ones, in case I damaged them. This one was already in ‘rustic’ condition, shall we say – so I wouldn’t feel too guilty about using it, since there was very little of value left to damage!!

See what I mean?? This box’s list of ailments was impressive, to say the least. Let’s see now…

– No key.
– Torn accessories caddy.
– Broken organiser.
– Broken inkstand.
– Ink stains everywhere.
– Inkwell was falling apart, and leaking like a sieve.
– Scratches and grime all over the place.
– Broken divider between the inkwell and pen-rest.
– Completely devoid of writing accessories.
– Aide Memoire was shot to a million pieces.

Repairing the Inkstand The first and easiest repair was fixing the inkstand. This is just three or four pieces of wood which just slot together. Unfortunately, someone glued them together. Someone else then tried to pull it apart, and broke the wood at the glued joints. I pulled the wood apart and used a very sharp knife to cut away the glue and separate the wood. I glued back the broken parts as they were originally intended, and then slotted everything back together, without glue or nails or screws to hold it together (as it was originally designed to do).

The writing-slope with the inkstand disassembled. Removing this also allowed me to clean up a lot of the ink that you can see in the corner, from the leaking inkwell. I used extra-fine steel wool for that. It scrubs away the majority of the ink without seriously damaging the wood finish.

Once that was done, I had to measure and cut a new divider between the pen-rest and the inkwell. The old one was broken in half, and the removable pen-rest kept sliding back and forth, knocking against the inkwell. It was a simple repair and easily accomplished.

Repairing the Leather Not so easy was repairing the leather. The writing-slope had DEEP scratches, and many stains and blemishes, not to mention the fact that in areas, the leather was peeling off and in others, was gone completely! Fortunately the vast majority of the box was still leather-covered. I was able to glue down the loose bits, and then cleaned and polished the leather with dubbin and black shoe-polish. It removed some of the scratches and marks, but not all of them. Indeed, not even most of them. But it’s better than nothing! And far easier than ripping off all the leather and replacing it entirely!

Repairing the Organiser

Repairing the organiser (the two-slot space for storing papers), was significantly easier than trying to remove the blemishes from the leather. I had enough broken and loose bits of wood leftover in the box to trace, cut and stain extra parts of the correct size. I then glued them all back into place…

Replacing the Aide Memoire One of the biggest issues with this box was replacing the Aide Memoire. The two white shield-shaped panels on the lid. Really fancy writing-slopes have these made of sheets of purest ivory. Cheaper ones, they’re made of celluloid. And the really rock-bottom economy models (like this one!!) – they’re just cardboard! In fact they’re not even cardboard, they’re cardstock. The same stuff which Hallmark uses in all its fancy greetings-cards! The original aide memoire was so dilapidated it literally crumbled off on the way home. I scraped off the remainder with a knife…

…and then made tracings of the outlines. I cut two identical white, waxed cardstock templates and glued them into place. I measured and checked everything countless times, to ensure that they were as close to the originals as possible…

Gluing the Inkwell Back Together One of the biggest headaches about this writing-slope was the inkwell. After 100 years, it was falling apart in the most spectacular fashion, and I had no idea how to fix it. The inkwell is made up of three components: – A necked, glass bottle. – A threaded, brass collar that goes over the neck. – A threaded, brass cap that screws onto the collar. The collar is held onto the neck by some manner of filler-adhesive. Over 100 years or more, the adhesive had not only lost its grip, it had lost its integrity, too.

One good wiggle was all it needed to part neck from collar, in what was already a construct of the flimsiest condition. Fortunately, no element of the inkwell was broken when it came apart. I chipped, scraped and sanded off all the leftover adhesive-filler, and then I used two-part epoxy filler-adhesive, to glue the collar back onto the glass neck, and create a watertight seal. It was a bit messy, as glue is apt to be, but it got the job done with spectacular results! The inkwell is now whole again, leakproof and able to hold fluid without leaking everywhere!

Cutting a Key After all that came what was possibly the hardest task, which ironically, had been among the easiest in all my previous jobs! Finding a key for the lock! These old writing-boxes, generally, have very simple one-lever locks. A key with a barrel and head the right size is all that’s needed to turn the bolt. No fiddly teeth or notches required. Or at least, not normally. But this lock was proving more than cantankerous. It defied all my usual attempts to find a key for it.

I was on the verge of giving up and sending the whole damn thing to a locksmith, when I decided to give it all one last try. To send this to a locksmith would’ve cost me a prohibitive amount of money, and time, considering that a box of keys is only a few bucks. I purchased said box of keys, found one of an appropriate size, and then unscrewed the lock from the box, and then used a flat-head screwdriver to lever the plates apart…

Once sufficiently loosened, the entire thing fell apart. The lock is only made up of three components. The frontplate, the bolt, and the backplate, containing the lever and spring. This was just a one-lever lock. So I only had to file down a key to make it the right size to push against one item. Locks like this can have as many as three, five, or even eight levers, or more. After a lot of filing and testing, I got a key to fit the lock. I reassembled the lock…

…and then I hammered it back together, slotted it back into the box, screwed it down, and tied the key to the box-handle to stop it getting lost.

Finishing Touches After repairing the lock, the aide memoire, as much of the leather as I could, the inkstand and the inkwell, the organiser and wiping off a considerable amount of grime, all I hd left was the finishing touches. Cleaning it once more, and finding all the necessary bits and pieces to fill it up. Like all the bone and ivory to accessorize it with:

The ink-eraser knife, the letter-opener, and the page-turner (white thing on the pen-rest) are all ivory from the Victorian era. The dip-pen is bone. And here we have it. Is it perfect? Not really. But it’s the closest that we’re likely to get to ever seeing what the original condition of this box might’ve been, over 130 years ago.


Posted by on April 17, 2015 in Antiques


Antique Ivory – What is it? Where does it come from? How do you get it? Is it LEGAL?

I collect antiques.

I have done for quite a few years, now. And I consider myself to be at least reasonably knowledgeable about the items which, and the periods from when I collect.

My main area of collection is antique writing accessories and equipment, although I will collect anything that catches my fancy, so as a result, my collection can be rather eclectic. Over the years I’ve noticed that I’ve amassed a small collection of ivory. And this is what this post is about. Ivory. What is is, how to I.D. it, where to find it, how to get it and all that other good stuff.

Ivory is beautiful. Ivory is rare. Ivory is expensive. And ivory is fraught with legal, moral and other kinds of difficulties. So let’s get right into it!

What Is Ivory?

In simplest terms, ivory is teeth. It’s the enamel-like substance that makes up the core and exterior of tusks and teeth. It’s famed for its colour, texture, ease of carving and variety of size and shape.

Where does Ivory Come From?


Yes. But there are also a number of other sources. These include hippos, walruses, seals, narwhals, and the extinct mammoth. Mammoth ivory is legal to purchase and trade, as it does not harm living creatures, however, it is very expensive. It’s also legal to trade other ivory, provided that the ivory comes from a creature that died of natural causes. As poaching ivory-bearing animals is illegal, quantities of legal ivory are very small and the prices are, unsurprisingly, prohibitively expensive.

Is it Legal to Own Ivory?

Yes…with a ‘but’.

It IS legal to own, buy and sell antique ivory. The animal’s already dead, so there’s no issues surrounding poaching, or wondering where the ivory came from. Nobody cares about an elephant who died 150 years ago. You can’t be prosecuted for owning antique ivory (s’long as you didn’t steal it!). I own about a dozen pieces of antique ivory myself. All purchased quite legally from antiques shops and flea-markets, fairs and other such events.

Owning NEW ivory is fraught with ALL KINDS of issues. ‘New’ ivory basically means anything which was harvested, or processed in any way, after the Second World War, and especially, after the 1970s and 80s.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, okay sure. Whatever. But is it LEGAL to own new ivory?

YES. But owning new ivory comes with so many strings attached, you could strum it like a harp.

It IS legal to buy and own modern ivory, but when you see the hassle that goes into it…you might change your mind. Even expert antiques dealers and auctioneers who have been doing this for decades couldn’t tell you how hard it is. There’s more loopholes in this than the curtain wall on a castle. Don’t believe me? Here goes…

It is legal for Alaskan natives to sell ivory (walrus ivory, usually) to non-natives. BUT ONLY AFTER the animal (which was hunted) has been thoroughly used up, FIRST. Killing the walrus just for the ivory and discarding the rest of the animal is illegal.

It’s legal to sell MAMMOTH ivory, because mammoths are already dead, so no live animals are hurt in extracting the ivory. But it’s prohibitively expensive.

It’s legal to sell narwhal ivory. But again, you need paperwork.

It’s legal to sell ‘vintage ivory’ (that is, ivory that’s old, but which is still postwar), so long as you have full documentation.

Ivory, Bone and Plastic

For whatever reason – Perhaps you inherited it – perhaps you found it – perhaps you bought it at a flea-market or antiques shop – you have a piece of ivory.

Or at least, you think you do. But you have no idea if it is. How do you tell? Here is my guide to determining if something is, or is not ivory.

Here, we have a closeup of three different materials. One of them is ivory. Two of them are often mistaken for ivory. What’s the difference??

The items are a page-turner, a paper-folder, and the scales from a straight-razor. They all look roughly the same, but only one is the real McCoy. How do you tell which one of these three materials is ivory? Well, to help you with that, here is my own little guide:


…is a natural product. If it looks absolutely perfect, it ain’t ivory. Even the most perfect ivory will have flaws of some kind. Spots. Inclusions. Lines. Pitting. Stuff like that.
…is like wood. It has a grain that you can either see with your eyes, or feel with your fingernails. If you don’t see or feel some sort of grain – be suspicious!
…grain is never uniform. Like wood-grain, it’s random and goes all over the place. If the ‘grain’ is perfectly spaced out (see the straight razor at the bottom), then it is not ivory. It is plastic with a faux ‘grain’ on top to make it look like ivory.
…is normally very smooth, with minimal pitting and is usually an off-white cream or darker beige colour.
…does NOT have a whole heap of pitting and holes and black spots on it. Black spots and deep, frequent pitting (large enough to catch your fingernail in) means that the item is BONE, NOT IVORY. The black spots are marrow-flecks.
…can vary from piece to piece, depending on age, condition, and of course, the animal it’s taken from.

Beware of the term ‘French Ivory’. This is just a fancy way of saying ‘celluloid’, which itself was also called Xylonite and Parkesine (two early names for what later was called celluloid).

If the above guide doesn’t help, another way of testing for ivory is the ‘hot needle’ test. Heat up a needle until it’s really, really hot. Then stick it into the item which you think is ivory.

If it is ivory – nothing happens. If it isn’t ivory, then the item will melt, smoulder or the needle will sink into the item. Or the item might be bone.

If the item is celluloid, then DON’T TRY THIS!!! Antique celluloid is HIGHLY COMBUSTIBLE and it WILL burst into flames if it’s exposed to high enough heat. having seen what happens firsthand what happens when you set fire to celluloid (I did it as an experiment with a broken fountain pen) – I can assure you – you don’t want antique plastic flaring up and exploding in front of you!

Owning and Looking After Ivory

Owning ivory is legal, provided that it is ANTIQUE IVORY, or, if it’s modern ivory – if you have all the necessary documentation. With antique ivory, you don’t need documentation, so long as you can prove how old it is by some other means (maybe it’s part of a set, maybe it’s part of another antique, etc).

The only exception to this is the United States.

In the EU, Great Britain, and most countries of the former British Empire, it’s perfectly legal to own antique ivory – and you don’t need any supporting paperwork. Antiques dealers can sell it and trade it quite openly from their shops, market-stalls and elsewhere, and the discerning public can buy it, own it, use it and collect it as they wish.

But in America, laws were passed as recently as 2014 which state that ALL IVORY – including antique ivory – MUST come with certificates and paperwork from the relevant government departments stating that this ivory was legally purchased and accessed. There are NO exceptions to this.

The rest of the world doesn’t care – If it’s antique ivory, and it’s OBVIOUSLY antique ivory – then obviously, no animals in recent times died for it – so unless you stole it – it’s legal. This is the case in Britain, Europe, Australia and a number of other countries. But in the United States, all ivory, regardless of origin, provenance and history, must come with government documentation. Unsurprisingly, it’s rubbed a lot of people the wrong way – especially antiques dealers, who have now essentially been branded criminals for things that they purchased quite legally.

If you are in the ‘States, or if you’re going there with ivory – watch out!!

But, for whatever reason – you have ivory. You inherited, or bought it, or found it. Now what do you do to keep it safe?

Ivory should be handled with care. If you touch it often enough, it will eventually turn yellow (like those antique piano-keys), and it can dry out and crack. So keep it away from heat and strong sunlight as much as possible. So long as it’s kept cool, away from heat and strong light, an item made of ivory should last for many, many, many years.

My Ivory Collection

This is my personal collection of ivory, amassed over a period of about five years. It’s comprised of page-turners (the two flat pieces, bottom left), paper-knives (two on bottom right), ink-erasers (inner left and inner right. Spearpoint blades). Letter-opener (top left, next to ink-eraser). Button-hook, hole-punch, crochet-hook and file, and at the top – a ruler made of ivory. All these pieces are at least 100 years old (in some cases at least 150 years old!), and are all in wonderful condition.

Every piece here is ivory – and you can see the subtle differences in shade, finish, and colour. No two pieces are exactly the same. That is because this is a natural product which, like wood – is always a little different from sample to sample. Colour also varies from sample to sample. Compare the two ink-knives – the left one is darker, the right one is lighter.

This is my 13th piece of ivory – another paper-knife/letter-opener (or doctor’s tongue-depressor, as a few have suggested).

Hopefully this guide has been useful and helpful to people who own, or want to own, pieces of antique ivory :)

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Posted by on April 1, 2015 in Antiques


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