Caring for Ivory and Bone - Ivory and bone were particularly popular with the late Victorians and the Edwardians. These materials were often exquisitely painted and carved and were used for snuff and pill boxes, fans, combs, buttons, cutlery and jewellery. Many cherished curios and pieces of jewellery are made of delicate bone or ivory, two materials which need careful treatment to keep them looking good. Chatelaine's Antiques Collectibles Appraisals


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Chatelaine's Antiques & Appraisals Magazine > Tribal Art > Feature: Caring for Horn

Caring for Ivory and Bone - Chatelaine's Antiques and Appraisals Magazine

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Caring for Horn

 If you collect ornamental curios or functional items made from horn, they will need occasional attention to keep this natural material looking its best. Natural horn is a practical and attractive material and has long had a place all around the home.

 Horn comes from cattle and deer and has a long history both as a domestic and decorative material. The Vikings used whole cow horns as drinking vessels, and a small spoon made from horn is the traditional utensil with which to enjoy a boiled egg at its best - metal spoons are said to taint the flavour.

 Despite having very little intrinsic value, horn has been widely used for crafted items over the years simply because it was cheap, easily worked and could be polished to a shine that showed an attractive, translucent grain. Even the great art deco glass designed Rene Lalique found it a worthy material and produced some very fine carved jewellery pieces. Among other popular items made from horn have been ornamental snuff and pill boxes, walking-stick handles and cappings, hair combs, buttons, fans and many eating utensils.

 Horn is composed of keratin, the same pliable material as our fingernails, and was commonly worked in strips taken from the outer layers of whole cow horns. In this form it can be quite easily moulded into various shapes by heating, wetting and bending. Alternatively, it can be cut into thin, flat, regular plates and assembled to make boxes, or used for inlay.

 As a natural substance, though, horn is prone to problems with age which are the very reverse of its virtues as a material when new: it is very easy to carve, but it is also very easy to scratch; and though flexible when fresh and moist, it becomes brittle and chips and flakes if it dries out.

 The best care for horn, therefore, is to ensure that it is kept away from extremes of temperature and humidity and that it is occasionally cleaned and nourished' with a little almond oil or olive oil. If damage has already occurred there are still several things you can do to restore it.


 A quick swab over with cotton wool dipped in warm, soapy water is all that is needed to clean grimy horn. Never soak it, or it may lose its shape and possibly begin to give off an unpleasant smell. If the piece has warped it may need to be carefully bent back into shape after heating it in the steam of a kettle. This process will only be successful if the piece can be clamped into its proper shape while it cools and dries to the right moisture content.

 Bad scratches can be removed from horn with a paste made from French chalk mixed with a little water, repeatedly applied as necessary.

 Serious cracks and chips demand rather more drastic action which may permanently ruin the original finish and should only be undertaken if there is no other choice. This sort of damage involves filling with an epoxy-resin filler, then rubbing down with very fine 'wet-and-dry' abrasive paper and disguising the repair with paint applied to imitate the real finish.

 Horn ornaments need only to be polished with a silicone wax after cleaning. For spoons, salad servers and other utensils used for eating, rub each piece over with a little almond or olive oil after cleaning.

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