Ivory Jewelry - Beauty Besmirched by Cruelty

2013 Aug 31 - by dulhan
Ivory has been a staple material for art and jewelry-making in India since, and possibly before, Vedic times.  The creamy texture of the bone and its pliability make it a sought after commodity that still dominates the market despite the various governmental restrictions on its trade.

Photo via The New York Times

  • Who: Ivory jewelry
  • What: Jewelry made out of Asian and African elephant tusks and rhino horns.
  • When: Throughout history and possibly pre-Vedic.
  • Where: Throughout India with centers in New Delhi and Jodhpur.
  • Process: Requires skilled carvers.

Ancient Vedic texts list ivory work among the most elite of handicrafts and a lot of early ivory pieces depicted Hindu deities or Christian iconography. The popularity of ivory is evident throughout world history as a whole range of ivory items, including but not limited to chess sets, boxes, beads, and palanquins, have been unearthed in various parts of the globe. Generally ivory jewelry takes the form of bangles, beads, and pendants.  Because it is carved bone, it is not as malleable as gold and therefore cannot be cut into most jewelry shapes.  Rather it features intricate carvings over simple jewelry articles.  Elephants (ironically) are popular motifs in ivory carvings, as are flowers and natural scenes.

To prepare the material, craftspeople shave down the outer, bark-like layer of the tusk to reveal the shiny ivory beneath.  They then divide the tusks into a series of chunky rings.  The cores of these rings are then carved into other items, like beads, pendants, and statuettes.

To make ivory bangles, the tusk is separated into four parts of 15-30 inches each.  These parts are then cut down into smaller sections - 3-3.5 inches for churha bangles and 2-5 inches for muthia bangles. These sections are cut down further to create the individual bangles in a range of sizes.

Finally the designs are drilled into the bangle and it is polished.  They might also be painted, dyed, or covered in gold and silver leaf, hiding the ivory itself.  Bangles ornamented like this are rare today but they used to be very popular at the beginning of the 20th century.

Possibly due to its ancient origins, ivory jewelry has spawned a series of traditions.  For instance, it is a custom to give ivory bangles as gifts to Rajasthani and Gujurati brides.  The sat phere cannot occur without the ivory bangle at the Gujurati weddings.  Married Rajasthani women wear a range of ivory bangles above the elbow (as shown above) for the rest of their lives.

As well, many North Indian Hindu, Sikh, and Jain weddings will have a churha (or chooda) ceremony in which the bride is given a special assortment of bangles - in the Hindu Punjabi tradition, it is four sets of 21 red bangles and 1 ivory bangle, as shown in the picture above. Originally she was meant to wear them for a year but nowadays it is custom for wear them for 40 days.  Also, the churha ceremony's ivory bangles have been more or less replaced by cream-colored glass bangles, though, of course, some families still maintain the ivory tradition.

The waning of the use of real ivory coincides with the Indian government's bans and restrictions on ivory trade.  Ivory is extracted through cruel and inhumane methods and targets endangered species.

We at the Big Fat Indian Wedding do not advocate the purchase of ivory items. They may have been obtained through illegal means, usually by poaching through killing elephants. It is destructive to the natural flora and fauna of South Asia and Africa and puts our majestical beasts at high risk.

Sources Culturopedia, Traditional Jewelry of India by Oppi Untracht, Big Life Foundation, and The Indian Photographer

Photos courtesy of A Brandt and SonThe Swelle Life and Bigeye Photography