Materiality: Ivory

For many, the word “ivory” brings to mind elephants, but the term actually refers to any animal tooth or tusk used as carving material. Since antiquity, ivory has symbolized wealth. Sources of ivory include elephants, walruses, hippopotamuses, narwhals, and whales, and mammoth ivory (for example) was carved as early as 35,000 BC. Many artisans worldwide preferred African elephant tusks due to their large size and ease of carving. Poaching to supply the demand for these tusks has driven African elephants to the brink of extinction.

This exhibition will present a selection of ivory combs in museum collections and provide a brief survey of the chronological and geographical scope of ivory through combs. From luxury examples to everyday use, ivory combs have been used to de-tangle and adorn women and men throughout history.  Like tortoiseshell, ivory fell out of fashion in the 1950s, as plastic became more readily available, affordable, and less environmentally destructive than ivory, which correlates with the rise in animal conservation and protection.


Walker, John Frederick. Ivory's Ghosts: The White Gold of History and the Fate of the Elephants. New York: Grove Press, 2009.