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FAQ 7.C.3: The "Is It Ivory" Checklist

NOTE: On February 11, 2014, the U.S. instituted a ban on interstate sale of ivory items, and made it illegal to sell ivory items without a permit that can be obtained only by proving that the items were imported to the U.S. before the 1989 import ban. The 2014 ban also prohibits selling ivory items across state lines. So if you live in the United States, don't buy any ivory or elephant bone items from any other country or state! And if you own an ivory set, do not try to sell it without that special permit. For more information, see http://tinyurl.com/Ivory-ban-enforcement (short URL to full Feb. 11 2014 article by Darryl Fears in Washington Post's Health and Science section, "New rules will ban import and export of ivory, and make it harder than ever to sell").

FAQ 7c describes the difference between various materials tiles are made of, including the oft-asked question "bone vs. ivory." First, read FAQ 7c - especially the sections on Bone, Ivory, and Celluloid.

Bone and ivory look extremely similar. Most of this FAQ is devoted to telling bone from ivory. But celluloid (sometimes called "French ivory") is sometimes confused with ivory, due to its visible grain. So before we get into Bone Vs. Ivory, let's learn about...

DISTINGUISHING SYNTHETIC MAN-MADE MATERIALS FROM NATURAL MATERIALS

Celluloid is a synthetic man-made material. Bone and ivory are both natural materials. You have touched plastic items before, right? And you have touched bone. I used to be a model maker, so I long ago learned to differentiate plastic items from items made of materials that occur in nature. Even for those who do not have a background as a professional model maker, I think it is not too difficult to tell the difference. Use your senses of vision, touch, smell, and hearing.

TOUCH - Feel the tiles. It would be helpful if you have a known bone or ivory item to feel, and some known plastic items to feel. Plastic is usually smoother, and plastic tiles would usually not have file marks or saw marks (although I have seen plastic tiles that were cheaply saw-cut for sale in China). Plastic usually has a "colder" feel than bone or ivory. And ivory is more dense (thus heavier) than bone.

HEARING - Tap the tiles with your fingernail and listen to the sound. Tap a plastic item. Tap a bone item. Listen to see if you can discern a difference.

SMELL - Another test: smell the items. And run your finger along them to warm them (that might cause them to emit a smell). Plastic smells different and has a different feel from items that occur in nature.

VISION - Examine the surface. If there is any translucence, you can eliminate bone. Examine the designs (the Chinese writing, the indices if any, the flower designs, etc.). See if the designs are hand-carved or machine-pressed into the tiles. Carved designs are rarely flat at the bottom, and sometimes there are minor scratches where the artisan's knife slipped a little (and sometimes there is no paint in these scratches). If the designs on one tile are 100% identical to the designs on another tile (without any of the subtle variations that would be expected if they were made by hand) then perhaps they are machine-made (top carvers can do excellent work, but slight variations will be inevitable - often the digits or letters are a giveaway). Uniformity of pattern: many bakelite and catalin sets have a mixed bag of flowers. If any two of them are exactly the same, the likelihood is very high that they are pressed (not hand-carved). If the designs are machine-pressed into the tiles, the tiles are definitely not of a natural material - they are synthetic (man-made). Bone and ivory tiles are always carved (never machine-pressed).

DISTINGUISHING BONE FROM IVORY - THE "IS IT IVORY" CHECKLIST

You will need a magnifying lens or jeweler's loup. Get out a piece of paper and a pen. You need to examine several tiles of your mah-jongg set in bright light, so set up a place to do that. You cannot base your conclusions on just one tile. Examine a number of them.

On your paper, down the left side, write the numbers 1 through 3.


1. Since you have read FAQ 7c, you know what Haversian system is. Is it present on any of your tiles? And since you have read FAQ 7c, you know what Haversian system is a distinguishing characteristic of - and you know whether the presence of Haversian system is an indication FOR or AGAINST your tiles being ivory. After the #1 on your paper, write the word "For" or the word "Against."
Can't take a hint? Here's the straight poop. If you see ANY Haversian system on even ONE of your tiles, then they are all BONE. NOT ivory.


2. Since you have read FAQ 7c, you know to look for pearlescent wavy grain (Schreger lines). Are Schreger lines present on any of your tiles? Since you have read FAQ 7c, you know what this is a distinguishing characteristic of - and you know whether the presence of a pearlescent wavy grain is an indication FOR or AGAINST your tiles being ivory. After the #2 on your paper, write the word "For" or the word "Against." [NOTE: the presence of straight grain is not the same as "wavy" grain. Since you have read FAQ 7c, you ought to know what straight grain is a distinguishing characteristic of.] Another test of "pearlescence:" under strong light (and looking through a magnifying lens), rotate the tile. When the grain is "pearlescent," it will appear and disappear when viewed from different angles. It's kind of spooky, actually!
Can't take a hint? Here's the straight poop. If you do NOT see pearlescent wavy grain on ANY of your tiles, they are NOT ivory.


3. Since you have read FAQ 7c, you know to look for a cross-hatch effect on the ends or edges of the tiles. Can you see this effect, and are you certain you are seeing a pattern in the material itself (not simply saw marks)? Since you have read FAQ 7c, you know what this is a distinguishing characteristic of - and you know whether the presence of the cross-hatching is an indication FOR or AGAINST your tiles being ivory. After the #3 on your paper, write the word "For" or the word "Against."
Am I being too obtuse with my hints? Here's the straight poop: if you do NOT see ANY cross-hatching on the ends of your tiles (or if the cross-hatching could just be saw marks), then your tiles are NOT ivory.

Now take a look at your list. Are all 3 checks now indications FOR your tiles being ivory? Have you written the word "For" three times? If so, then congratulations, it's ivory!

But if you have NOT written "For" three times... if you have written "Against" even just one time... they're most likely not ivory.

No wait, I've got it. Write the word "Maybe" wherever applicable. Yeah, that's it! If I keep saying I'm not sure if it's ivory or not, maybe I can sell it for more...!! ... Denial isn't the answer. If you see distinguishing characteristics that indicate it's not ivory, AND you think MAYBE there's a distinguishing characteristic in favor of its being ivory, well, don't you think you're guilty of wishful thinking if you convince yourself that maybe an ivory tile might have Haversian system once in a while? Or that maybe some of the tiles are bone while others are ivory? And don't you think it would be somewhat dishonest to advertise the set as ivory when offering it for sale?

If it's not ivory, it's not ivory. Deal with it. Bone sets in good condition are still worth something.

Here's one more clue. Ivory sets being more valuable than bone sets, take a look at the container that the set came in. If it's just an ordinary drawer box with unlined drawers, it's probably bone. But if the tiles are lovingly protected with velvet-lined trays, then it could well be ivory. Presence of lining in the container is not a conclusive deciding factor that the tiles therein are ivory, but it's weight on the ivory side.
And here's another thing to look at (I lied when I said "one more clue"). If the tiles are backed with bamboo, look at the quality of the dovetailing. Many bone/bamboo sets have split apart since the 1920s when they were made, and/or the glue between the bone and the bamboo may have deteriorated. If your tiles are protected by velvet, and the dovetailing is of very good quality that has withstood the ravages of time, then that's more weight on the side of ivory. Reason: ivory being more valuable than bone, the craftsman who made the tiles probably took more care with ivory than he did with bone.

Once you've determined whether your set is bone or ivory, if you next want to establish a value for the set, you need to read FAQ 7h, and fill out the Set Valuation Checklist. The FAQs are here for you to read. Please read them!

NOTE: Be advised that some countries (like the United States) prohibit the importation of ivory items (or any items made from endangered species like elephants). Although it is legal to sell ivory items that entered the U.S. before the ban, it is illegal to import them. So if you live in the United States, don't buy any ivory or elephant bone items from any other country!

From the Mah-Jongg Q & A Bulletin Board:


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