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French ivory is an early manmade material created to resemble expensive natural ivory. This faux ivory is made from celluloid, a cellulose and camphor thermoplastic dating to the 1860s, and widely used until the middle of the 20th century. It can be differentiated from natural ivory by its parallel lines rather than the crosshatched lines found in genuine ivory and by its lighter weight. French ivory can be molded easily, making it an ideal substance for a wide variety of items, including decorative dresser sets, handles for flatware, hair accessories and gaming pieces. Although it has some drawbacks and requires thoughtful storage and care, many antique and vintage items made from this early plastic are highly collectible.
Early experimentation with celluloid or French ivory focused on the manufacturing of a substitute for costly natural ivory billiard balls. It wasn’t until camphor was added to the experimental mixture that a material hard enough for billiard balls was created. Alexander Parkes, Daniel Spill, John Wesley and Isaiah Hyatt all played crucial roles in perfecting this early plastic in the 1860s and 1870s.
Soon, the material was being molded into a variety of decorative items, including jewelry, accessories, buttons and handles for hairbrushes and other personal care items, all at a relatively low cost. Also known as Ivorine, Ivoire de Paris, Ivorette and other various trade names that allude to its resemblance to natural ivory, the material was popular because of its ivory color and affordability. The use of more durable plastics eventually replaced its widespread use.
Created primarily from the plant material cellulose and alcoholized camphor, this early manmade material had some drawbacks. Billiard balls made of it were said to break occasionally on contact, and the material is highly flammable. Unlike ivory, French ivory yellows with age. It also is easily stained by perfumes and oils, making French ivory jewelry and accessories less durable that those made from the natural materials that this substance mimicked.
Along with producing celluloid that resembled ivory, colors were created to mimic tortoiseshell, coral and amber, which also are expensive natural materials. Special dyes were used to tint the celluloid. Beads, broaches, fancy hair combs, hatpins and other accessories made of ivory-colored celluloid are readily found in antique markets and collectible vintage jewelry shops.
Several tests exist to identify items made of French ivory. The “hot pin” test is destructive and not frequently used by collectors, because celluloid is flammable. A less-harmful test involves holding the piece in hot water for several seconds, and if it gives off a camphor smell, like mothballs, it probably is celluloid. This early plastic also can be identified by its light weight and translucent nature when held to the light. Its tendency towards brittleness and cracking also help identify it.
Caring for antique and vintage items made from French ivory requires attention to storage conditions. Extreme heat and cold, along with high humidity or direct sunlight, can damage French ivory. Oils, alcohol-based perfumes, makeup and other chemicals should be kept away from items made from celluloid. It can be cleaned with warm water and a soft brush.
Pretty brilliant stuff, if you think about it. Perhaps no one knew it, but ivory was becoming a rare resource in the 1860s and a substitute was needed. Was French ivory an attempt to make a tolerable substitute for an expensive substance or did someone have the foresight to recognize that we simply could not meet our demand for ivory by slaughtering elephants forever?
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