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Caring for Your Ivory **






Note: The following is only suggested care of ivory; it is not intended to be a standard manual of care for ivory of any kind, and should be used only as a reference for your consideration. We are not responsible for how one might care for ivory or reader's interpretation of this content.

Before cleaning any ivory, it helps to know what comprises ivory - that would be dentine. Dentine is made up of both organic and inorganic components. The organic components provide the capacity for growth and repair, while the inorganic components provide for strength and rigidity. Also, the patina on old ivory is the result of the natural aging process.

Care of ivory is also dictated by how it reacts to the surrounding environment. Results of exposure to different environments are as follows:

  • Bleaches when exposed to light
  • Low humidity can cause shrinkage, cracking and desiccation (drying up)
  • High humidity can cause warping and swelling
  • Heat fluctuations can also cause similar swelling and shrinkage


Due to the porousness of ivory, it is susceptible to staining and contact with the following should be avoided:

  • Skin
  • Oil
  • Corroding metals
  • Colored materials
For this reason you will want to either wear white cotton gloves when handling or cleaning ivory, or if gloves are not available, you should at the very least wash your hands with soap and water to remove hand oils and dirt before handling any ivory item.

Cleaning Piano Keys - Piano keys can become soiled over time from an accumulation of oil and dirt deposited by fingers and can be cleaned the following way:

  1. Use a soft white cloth dampened with water and a small amount of mild soap. No solvents.
  2. Making sure the cloth is wrung out, wipe the keys in a back-to-front motion to avoid having any moisture seep between the keys. Clean only a few keys at a time.
  3. Dry the just wiped keys immediately with a lint-free, soft cloth. Note: Do not use the same cloth for cleaning sharps to clean the keys as this may deposit black stains on the white keys.


Assorted Ivory Jewelry Pieces

Cleaning Ivory Jewelry - Ivory jewelry can be cleaned and polished by using a white, clean cotton cloth. You never want to use any chemical jewelry cleaner or harsh soap on your ivory jewelry - particularly any ivory jewelry with engraved lines and pigments (scrimshaw) - as this will dull the surface, may cause staining to the ivory itself and/or may remove the pigments.

Cleaning ivory beads - Dip a soft cloth in a warm water-mild soap solution and go over the beads. Dry with clean cloth paying particular attention to the clasp. Do not submerge the entire string of beads as this may cause damage to the string, clasp or other ornaments.

Ivory jewelry should be stored away from exposure to water and direct light. If you use a damp cloth to clean your ivory jewelry, dry it immediately.

The ivory patina is very desirable, however, to prevent excessive discoloration to ivory jewelry it should not be worn when the weather is hot and moist as human sweat is the main cause of ivory discoloration on antique jewelry. You may also find some jewelry with pinkish or reddish tinge. This discoloration may be attributed to the absorption of henna dye on the skin of previous owners. General Maintenance - To re-hydrate your ivory, you may want to apply mineral oil (colorless) to the item with a clean brush. Remove any excess with another clean brush followed by gently wiping with a soft, dry cloth.

Option: Ivory can be polished with a pure beeswax on an annual basis. To do this, warm the beeswax and gently rub the wax onto the ivory. A cotton swab dipped in the warm beeswax may be a more efficient way to apply the wax onto some items. Note: The beeswax should be colorless to avoid staining the ivory.


Carved Ivory Tusk


Figurines - Caring for ivory figurines is basically the same as caring for jewelry or any other ivory item. To help prevent hairline cracks, it is recommended to give these items regular care, ie., once a year by using mineral oil and a soft brush to apply a thin coat over the surface of the item. If the ivory is in excellent condition, use a clean soft brush to brush away the oil. If the item is dry, allow the oil to sit for a while and then use a clean soft brush to brush away the oil. After using the clean brush, use a clean soft cloth and with a gentle hand smoothly polish the surface until it looks oil free.

Looking for more information? Here is a link to a another site, which advocates non-fluid cleaning methods and is well worth reading if you are attempting cleaning . . . http://www.bladestuff.com/conserva/ivory3.html . . . and here is a link to the Smithsonian Museum Conservation Institute, on the care and handling of precious ivory . . . http://www.si.edu/mci/english/learn_more/taking_care/ivory.html






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