This article is from the Piercing FAQ, by Anne Greenblatt with numerous contributions by others.
2A.3c Ivory, Horn, Antler
Thanks to Jesse Jarrell for the information
contained in this article. Please visit his webpage for photos and
more information, at
All of these materials are somewhat porous and readily absorb moisture
and skin oils. This can lead to cracking in a few of these materials.
Absorption of moisture can be avoided by coating or pressure
impregnating the material with a substance such as bee’s wax or a
hypoallergenic sealant. I would not recommend oiling ivory or horn
jewelry as it will tend to promote cracking rather than deter it.
Skin oils make these materials more flexible. With designs such as the
captive bead ring, this can result in lost beads if the carver does
not adjust for expansion. I recommend using a coating or some type of
pressure treatment to prevent the ring from becoming
flexible. Untreated captive bead rings should be very tight before
they have been worn. If you are afraid of breaking an untreated ring
you should wear the ring without the bead for about a day to soften
Mammoth ivory is easily acquired in Alaska, Siberia and other places
where it has been preserved underground in permafrost for thousands of
years. Gold miners often find it during erosion mining in glacial
silt. Because of it’s age mammoth ivory is difficult to acquire in
large solid pieces. Ivory is softer than most stone and is flexible
which makes it ideal for intricate and delicate carvings. The foremost
disadvantage of using aged or fossilized ivory for body jewelry is
that it absorbs skin oils which causes it crack. Mammoth ivory ranges
in color from a cream white to a medium brown. Darker ivory is more
fragile and will crack with moisture much more easily, making it
unsuitable for delicate work.
Most sources of fresh ivory such as elephant tusks are subject to
legal restrictions. Two sources of unrestricted ivory are warthog and
hippopotamus tusks. Fresh ivory does not have the same problems with
cracking that aged ivory has.
Dall Sheep Horn
Dall sheep horn is semi-transparent material with an opaque white
grain. The advantage of sheep horn is its superior flexibility over
other organic materials. Sheep horn tends to distort or bend when
exposed to moisture or skin oils. Body jewelry that must to hold a
precise shape or is dependent on tension, like a captive bead ring,
must be stabilized.
Water Buffalo Horn
When polished, water buffalo horn looks similar to ebony. It is not as
flexible as sheep horn and has a much stronger grain, which makes
delicate or detailed work more difficult. Because of the grain it will
crack with exposure to skin oils and thus cannot be used for body
jewelry unless stabilized.
Moose, Elk and Deer Antler
Antler varies in color from ivory white to shades of brown and gray
and sometimes has a purplish hue near the surface. White antler can be
nearly indistinguishable from ivory in appearance. Antler will almost
never crack with exposure to moisture or skin oils. It is an excellent
substitute for ivory because of its comparative cost, availability,
and durability. However, it is a bit softer and more porous than
ivory, resulting in less strength against fractures.