Vegetable ivory

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Tagua nuts


Tagua nut piece

The hard, cream-colored seed of the any of several palm trees. Vegetable ivory resembles true ivory in appearance and hardness, but it has a fibrous microscopic structure. Ivory nuts were used for small carved items, buttons, dice, knife handles, cane heads, and Japanese netsuke. They accept dyes readily and can be polished to a glossy luster. Some of the vegetable ivory palms are:

  • Ivory nut - Phytelephas macrocarpa, found in Colombia and Ecuador
  • Doum palm nuts - Hyphaene thebaica, found in Africa
  • tagua palm nuts - Phytelephas euqatorialis, found in South America
  • apple nuts - Metroxylon amicarum, found in the South Pacific

Synonyms and Related Terms

ivory nut; doom palm nut; gingerbread palm nut; apple nut; tagua nut; dom nut

Physical and Chemical Properties

  • Color = white but may be dyed any color
  • May be dyed any color, but dyeing may show grain or may not penetrate deeple
  • Birefringence = none
  • Pleochroism = none
  • Fluorescence = variable
  • Inclusions = parallel torpedo-shape cells that appear round in cross-section
Mohs Hardness 2.5
Density 1.38 - 1.42 g/ml
Refractive index 1.54

Resources and Citations

  • J.Thornton,"The Structure of Ivory and Ivory Substitutes", AIC Preprints, Philadelphia, 1981, p.173-181.
  • Gem Identification Lab Manual, Gemological Institute of America, 2016.
  • G.S.Brady, Materials Handbook, McGraw-Hill Book Co., New York, 1971 Comment: p. 424
  • Wikipedia: Vegetable Ivory Accessed Dec 2022
  • Hermann Kuhn, Conservation and Restoration of Works of Art and Antiquities, Butterworths, London, 1986
  • Random House, Webster's Encyclopedic Unabridged Dictionary of the English Language, Grammercy Book, New York, 1997
  • The American Heritage Dictionary or Encarta, via Microsoft Bookshelf 98, Microsoft Corp., 1998