Ivory, Bone and Shell Handles


Ivory has been a favorite knife handle material since ancient times. Ivory comes from the tusks of elephant tusks, walrus tusks and teeth, hippopotamus teeth, whale teeth and the ancient wooly mammoth tusks. Chemically, ivory is similar to bone and antler, and comprises a collagen matrix with a mineral component. Unlike bone, ivory has no blood vessel system, and is therefore more dense.

Elephant Ivory

The importation of Elephant ivory into the United States has been banned since 1992 to help stem the slaughter of African elephants for their tusks. Ivory that was imported prior to the ban, and there is a LOT of it, is perfectly legal to buy, sell or trade within the United States.


Walrus teeth and tusks have long been a source of ivory but is now protected.

Mammoth Ivory

Virtually the same texture and consistency of elephant ivory, mammoth ivory is a favorite knife handle material. Unlike elephant ivory, mammoth ivory has no trade restrictions since no animals are being harmed to harvest it. It is perfectly legal to buy, sell, trade, import and export. The wooly mammoth once roamed the earth in huge numbers and they had enormous ivory tusks that sometime grew as large as 16 feet long. Wooly mammoth remains have been found throughout the world but most intact specimens come from the artic regions where the bones and tusks have been preserved in the ice and permafrost. Some experts estimate that in one area of Siberia alone there may be one million wooly mammoths encased in the ice.

Mammoth ivory is often mistakenly referred to as fossilized ivory. In fact, it is only at the very beginning stages of fossilization which takes much long than the 10,000 - 20,000 years of age of  mammoth ivory.

Mammoth Bark Ivory: The interior tusk ivory is almost identical to the creamy white elephant ivory. One can only tell the difference by closely examining the grain of an end piece. The outer layer of the the tusk is known as the "bark" layer as it often resemble the bark of a tree. The outer layer of a tusk buried in the ground or ice comes in contact with it's surrounding and the interaction with present minerals will give the outer layers a unique coloring and texture. Colors may range from shades of brown, to blue, green and orange depending on where it was buried and what minerals to which it was exposed. The bark ivory is much more sought after and valuable because of it's unique and beautiful appearance and because it is much more rare. A typical tusk will have much more cream colored interior ivory and just a few outer layers of colored bark ivory.

Mammoth Teeth are also used in knife handles.


Bone handles knives are among the most common knives from the last 200 years. Readily available and durable, bone makes an excellent knife handle material. Although fairly hard and durable, bone does tend to crack over time and you will rarely see an antique bone handle that is not cracked. Bone can be carved, jigged, and dyed to achieve a wide variety of textures and colors. It can also be stabilized to help prevent shrinkage and cracking.

Cow Bone

Domestic bovine bone is very commonly used in knife handles. It is relatively strong and fairly hard in the outer layers but the interior is a much softer honeycomb like material or may  even be hollow. Bone does tend to shrink over time and will usually crack with age especially if exposed to heat. All types of bone can be leached white, colored with dyes, or stabilized.

Giraffe Bone

Giraffe bone is a favorite material because it is more dense and solid than most other bone. If you think about it, it makes sense. Giraffe are huge animals, often weighing over 2,000 pounds as adults. They must have very strong bones to support that weight on those skinny legs.

Camel Bone

Camel bone is becoming more popular for much the same reason as giraffe bone. It is very dense, solid and strong.

Fossilized Bone

Ancient fossilized bone is sometimes used for knife handles. These may be whale, sea cow or other varieties. These are very rare and expensive but can be quite unique in appearance and texture.

Shell (Mother of Pearl, Spiny Oyster)


Oyster shells have historically been prized for their beauty and durability. Like the pearls provided by the oyster, the shells have a beautiful translucent quality unmatched by any other material. It is also a favorite material for knifemakers because of it's beauty and because it is among the most stable natural materials available.

 The interior oyster shell, commonly known as Mother of Pearl, will not shrink or swell like bone, ivory, wood or almost any other natural material. However, it is very hard and brittle so it crack or chip easily. It is also a relatively rare and very expensive material, especially the black lip mother of pearl which has a translucent black color.

Mother of Pearl

Red Spiny Oyster Shell

Red spiny oyster shell is another favorite knife handle material. Oyster shells typically are not very large so mother of pearl is usually available only in smaller pieces as would be used on smaller pocket knives.

Unearthed and revealed in ancient Hohokam, Anazazi and Mogollon archaeological sites, the spiny oyster shell, commonly referred to as spondylus, found its way into the American Southwest through a flourishing trade network that stretched from the arid mesas of New Mexico to the scenic beaches off the Gulf of California. Whether utilized in Native American jewelry as an article of adornment or revered for its ceremonial significance, the beautiful spiny oyster shell has been an important to Native American artisans for at least a minimum. To better comprehend spiny oyster jewelry, a closer look at the shell and its different uses in Native American jewelry is necessary in communicating its importance.

No longer limited to the Gulf of California, the oceanic origin of spiny oyster shells transcends the boundaries of North America, allowing for a diversification in color that would have been unavailable six hundred or more years ago. The dominant colors of red and orange were prevalent in the majority of spiny oyster jewelry made by the prehistoric and modern Southwestern tribes of the Navajo, Hopi, Zuni and Rio Grande pueblos, until the recent additions of the colors purple, white, and to a lesser extent, yellow. Regardless of the color, the spiny oyster shell received its name because of the obvious spines or thorns protruding from the backside of the shell. Depending on the tribe, spiny oyster jewelry often reflects its artistic specialties.

Folklore, Legend, and Healing Properties: Carries the gentle, peaceful healing energy of the sea. Relaxes, soothes emotions, sensitivity, stress.

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