Our Journey with Fossil Walrus Tusk


We started World on a String over thirty years ago, carving fossil walrus tusk from St. Lawrence Island, Alaska. Only the native islanders could legally hunt for it. Sometimes, our material came from garbage dumps where broken fossil walrus fish hooks, harpoon points, and other artifacts had been tossed. It always tickled me to turn garbage into works of art.


Most of our fossil walrus tusk was excavated from the soil or found in the sea. We love this material. It served us well for years until bureaucracy intervened.


Fossil walrus tusk has an outer layer of dentine and an inner core that looks like popcorn. The popcorn is fine for shapes but it doesn’t show detail well. It was the dentine we were after and the thicker the layer the deeper the carving could go showcasing the expert talent of the Balinese master carvers.


And then the colors – depending on where the tusk had been buried, colors such as caramel (my favorite), blues and greens, and velvety browns emerged as the outer skin was carved off.


In the beginning, the material was not regulated but eventually, a CITES permit from the United States Fish and Wildlife Service was necessary to export the raw material to Bali and re import it, carved, back to the States. This became increasingly more difficult.


Hand-Carved Fossil Walrus Sculpture


Mammoth Tusk


Necessity pushed us towards mammoth tusk which is not only more economical but no CITES permit was or is needed.


Mammoths mostly died out about 10,000 years ago after roaming the earth for millions of years and evolving into the Woolly Mammoth. A small herd managed to remain on Wrangel Island in the Arctic Ocean and evolved into smaller animals. It makes me chuckle to think of tiny mammoths! Eventually, about 2,000 years ago, they became extinct as well. There are no living mammoths on earth.


Our mammoth tusk comes from the permafrost of the Yukon. It is a by-product of gold mining. The miners dig down through layers of permafrost and come across whole mammoth bodies, broken tusks, skulls with tusks, and just the tusks. The tusks sometimes take on the smell of the decaying bodies and it has been a challenge to find the right essential oils to eliminate that smell! No one wants to wear a necklace or earrings with odeur-de-mammoth wafting around!


Mammoth tusk, unlike fossil walrus tusk, is hollow inside except at the tip of the tusk. It grows in layers and these can pop apart as the tusk dries. The material must be dry before carving.


We have been carving this material for about 25 years and continue to delight in the surprises that unfold as the inner layers are exposed.

Hand-Carved Mammoth Tusk Sculpture


How Do We Know We are Buying Mammoth and Not Elephant Tusk?


Susan Tereba – World on a String has only ever worked with ancient-fossilized tusks. We respect the laws and bans on elephant ivory to help preserve these glorious animals. We only work with trusted suppliers who also respect modern-day elephants.


It is possible to tell the difference between mammoth ivory and present-day elephant. On a cross-section of both are lines like herringbone called Schreger lines. Both ivories have these but their angles are different. These lines can be seen under a microscope to determine the lines’ angle.


Mammoth tusk also picks up colors from minerals in the permafrost after eons of time buried there. Some of these colors can be seen with the aid of a hand-held UV light. They only occur in the mammoth tusk. They are never present in modern-day elephant tusks. You can find more information about this at: https://www.fws.gov/lab/ivory_natural.php


In the next Hot Flash, I’ll be writing about another material we use: Bovine Bone

Leave a Reply