Owning Ivory – Part 2 (Care)

Note: The following is only suggested care of ivory; it is not intended to be a standard manual of care for ivory of any kind, and should be used only as a reference for your consideration. We are not responsible for how one might care for ivory or for the reader’s interpretation of content.

Before Your Begin

Before cleaning any ivory, it helps to know that ivory consists of dentine.

Dentine is made up of both organic and inorganic components. The organic components provide the capacity for growth and repair, while the inorganic components provide for strength and rigidity.

Knowing this helps you understand how  ivory reacts to the environment as listed below:

  • Bleaches when exposed to light
  • Low humidity can cause shrinkage, cracking and desiccation (drying up)
  • High humidity can cause warping and swelling
  • Heat fluctuations can also cause similar swelling and shrinkage

The patina you see on old ivory is the result of a natural aging process. And, due to its porousness, ivory is susceptible to staining from contact with:

  • Skin
  • Oil
  • Corroding metals
  • Colored materials

For this reason you’ll want to either wear white cotton gloves when handling or cleaning ivory, or if gloves are not available, you should at the very least wash your hands with soap and water to remove hand oils and dirt.

Cleaning Piano Keys

Piano keys that have become soiled over time from an accumulation of oil and dirt from fingers can be cleaned the following way:

Use a soft white cloth dampened with water and a small amount of mild soap. No solvents.   Make sure the cloth is wrung out and wipe the keys in a back-to-front motion to avoid having any moisture seep between the keys. Clean only a few keys at a time and then dry immediately with a lint-free, soft cloth.

Note: Do not use the same cloth for cleaning sharps to clean the keys as this may deposit black stains on the white keys.

Cleaning Ivory Jewelry

Ivory jewelry can be cleaned and polished by using a white, clean cotton cloth. You never want to use any chemical jewelry cleaner or harsh soap on your ivory jewelry – particularly any ivory jewelry with engraved lines and pigments (scrimshaw) – as this will dull the surface, may cause staining to the ivory itself  and/or may remove the pigments.

To clean ivory beads, dip a soft cloth in a warm water-mild soap solution and go over the beads. Dry with clean cloth paying particular attention to the clasp. Do not submerge the entire string of beads as this may cause damage to the string, clasp or other ornaments.

Ivory jewelry should be stored away from water and direct light. If you use a damp cloth to clean your ivory jewelry, dry it immediately.

While the ivory patina is very desirable,  to prevent excessive discoloration to ivory jewelry,  it should not be worn when the weather is hot and moist as human sweat is the main cause of ivory discoloration on antique jewelry. In addition, when purchasing ivory jewelry, you may also find some jewelry with pinkish or reddish tinge. This discoloration may be attributed to the absorption of henna dye on the skin of previous owners.


Caring for ivory figurines is basically the same as caring for any other ivory item. To help prevent hairlines it is recommended to give these items regular care, i.e., once a year by using mineral oil and a soft brush to apply a thin coat over the surface of the item.

If the ivory is in excellent condition, use a clean soft brush to brush on the  oil. If the item is especially dry and needing extra hydration, allow the oil to sit for a while and then use a clean soft brush to brush away any excess oil. After using the clean brush, use a clean soft cloth and with a gentle hand smoothly polish the surface until it looks oil free.

Option: Ivory can be polished with a pure beeswax on an annual basis. To do this, warm the beeswax and gently rub the wax onto the ivory. A cotton swab dipped in the warm beeswax may be a more efficient way to apply the wax onto some items.   The beeswax should be colorless to avoid staining the ivory.


Caring for ivory isn’t expensive or hard, but one needs to exercise caution and diligence – wear white cotton glove and never soak any ivory item. As a final thought regarding stains, a white vinyl eraser may be used on some stubborn stains. However, make sure the eraser is white as using a colored eraser may transfer color onto the ivory. Once you’ve rubbed the eraser over the stains, use a soft brush to brush away the eraser flakes.

Want more information? Here is a link to a another site, which advocates non-fluid cleaning methods and is well worth reading if you are attempting cleaning . . .


. . . and here is a link to the Smithsonian Museum Conservation Institute, on the care and handling of precious ivory:



4 comments to Owning Ivory – Part 2 (Care)

  • candida k guzman

    Would like to sell a beautiful piece, African Elephant Tusk Ivory Bracelet Pre Ban Purchased in 1982 Any information or assistance would be greatly appricated. Thank you, Candy

    • David

      It is difficult to sell ivory without any provenance – please read some of the articles on ivory for a good idea of what you’ll need to sell this item. You can try visiting Heritage Auctionhttp://www.ha.com – they used to offer a ‘1-time’ appraisal. The link will be on the front page if they are still doing this. Good Luck – David

  • Hi, I am looking to sell an antique hand carved ivory piece chess set, I’ve had it valued but have no idea how to even begin to sell it. It was given to me many years ago as a gift but I have no use for it at all so I am looking to sell it to someone who may have use for it or who collects or something. Any information would be greatly appreciated

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