As an art medium today, ivory is a hugely controversial topic as it involves the killing of elephants for their ivory tusks. Historically, ivory was an important material for ornamental, decorative, and artistic use as well as for purely functional use. It has been valuable and a popular artistic medium in many parts of the world where it was traded for many centuries. It has been popular since ancient times, particularly to Greek and Roman civilizations, and is still prized today although bans on its trade have been established by many governments throughout the world in order to curb poaching on dwindling elephant populations.
Ivory, while most popularly associated with elephants, has also been derived from such animals as mammoths, walruses, hippos, and narwhals. Ivory forms the teeth and tusks of such animals and occurs as the same material no matter what animal it is taken from. Ivory has been carved and used to make a vast variety of objects. On the purely functional side, the substance was extremely important to ancient peoples as a material that could form an airtight seal. It was also used to make official seals and piano keys.
Artistically speaking, ivory has a rich history as an art medium. Historians believe that ivory was so popular in times of antiquity that certain elephant species found in the Middle East and Northern Africa were driven to extinction. Ivory was an important commodity of the ancient Silk Road being particularly valued by the Chinese. In Asia ivory was used to make small items like opium pipes and large items like ornately carved screens. Carved ivory statues were also popular items traded on the Silk Road. In Europe ivory was used to carve small statues of saints.
Many cultures prize ivory jewelry. Ivory can be carved into small beads or remain as a larger carved cabochon. Because ivory is a luxury item, it has been viewed as a material denoting status. Ivory also may serve as the handle piece of weapons like daggers. Additionally, ivory has been used artistically in furniture inlay. Many historical art pieces such as carved ivory panels exist as artistic treasures.
Today, even where ivory trade is not banned, it is greatly restricted and monitored. The drop in elephant populations led to this ban in the 1980s, but poachers have continued to diminish many threatened populations. Organizations like the United Nations took the lead in placing bans on ivory trade and many governments have supported their mandates regarding ivory. Many ivory items have been replaced by plastics or other materials. Given the ups and downs of these bans, it is likely that ivory will continue to be closely monitored for years to come.