Ivory has been historically valued due to its white finish, its relative hardness, as well as of its ease of carving.
Chemically speaking, the ivory found in the tusk of an elephant is no different than what is found in the teeth of your dog.
The size of elephant tusks significantly adds to the allure of elephant ivory in particular, as it allows for the carving of larger and more intricate items. This allure had contributed significantly to the poaching of elephants and is why the (legal) ivory trade ended decades ago.
It’s all made from dentin anyway, which is just a mix of organic / inorganic materials and some water. You can make it in a lab already, and we have CNC machines, so there’s basically zero excuse for using it any more.
One team of researchers from TU Wien (Vienna) and their spinoff company (Cubicure) has taken the concept of lab-made ivory one step further, and have applied additive manufacturing to produce pieces that are very close to the “real” thing. They have created a digital ivory named “Digory”, and they have been testing it on old artworks.
The printed variants have been used to replace ivory pieces in artwork collections in Austria. The 17th century Shrine of Frederic the Beautiful for instance is embellished with ivory trinkets which have just kinda wandered off over the years and so restorers were in need of a sustainable solution to replace the rare materials.
“The research project began with a valuable 17th-century state casket in the parish church of Mauerbach,” says Prof. Jürgen Stampfl from TU Wien.
“It is decorated with small ivory ornaments, some of which have been lost over time. The question was whether they could be replaced with 3D printing technology.”
You can see the answer to that question in the photograph below.
One of the parts is the printed Digory replica, and the other is an original ivory piece from the shrine.
Can you guess which is which?
The Digory bulk material is made by mixing particles of tricalcium phosphate and silicon oxide in an acrylic resin. The resin is then printed with an SLA type system.
By varying the amount of tricalcium phosphate in the mix they can alter the translucent of the part so that it better matches the optical properties and appearance of natural ivory.
Because traditional synthetic ivories are manufactured and sold in bulk, it makes it uneconomical for use on small one-off pieces like those aiming to be restored by TU Wien.
It is hoped that the Digory will fill the void for small scale jobs, and will ultimately reduce the demand for genuine elephant ivory which may sometimes still be used by antique restorers, despite the global ban on ivory products.