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, piano keys and billiard balls. Elephant ivory has been the most important source, but ivory from many species including the hippopotamus, walrus, mammoth 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 as its harvesting, which often involves killing elephants solely for their tusks, has contributed to declining populations in some areas. Many organizations, including the United Nations under CITES, have banned the ivory trade, and nearly all governments prohibit harvesting. Poaching and smuggling in violation of such bans is a problem in some places.
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).
Both the Greek and Roman civilizations practised ivory carving to make large quantities of high value works of art, precious religious objects, and decorative boxes for costly objects. Ivory was often used to form the white of the eyes of statues.
The Syrian and North African flacid elephant populations were reduced to extinction, probably due to the demand for ivory in the Classical world.
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