Others are looking closer to nature when it comes to ivory alternatives.

On a stall in St Alban's market in England, Alison Williams has seen her colourful jewellery business The Happy Elephant grow from strength to strength since it launched in 2020. Nothing surprising there as quirky beads are a standard feature of a weekend bazaar – only Alison's jewellery is created using tagua, also known as vegetable ivory. "Because of the story of it, people are blown away by what they see and feel," she says.

Tagua was first documented by Westerners in the late 1700s, when two Spanish botanists stumbled across it in the eastern foothills of the Andes, as explained in the book Strange Harvests. They assumed they'd discovered an ivory tree (the scientific name for tagua is Phytelephas, which literally translates from Greek as "plant elephant"). It was so convincing that as its use became more extensive in the 19th Century, the only way to distinguish between real ivory and tagua was by dabbing a drop of sulphuric acid onto the materials: tagua would turn pink while ivory would stay white.

The jewellery has such a tactile feel and dyes so well – Alison Williams

The palm is native to the rainforests, cloud forests and coastal plains of north-western South America. Williams learnt of tagua from locals in Ecuador where she and her husband spent many years.

Holding up a heavy, brown and spiky seedpod called a mococha, Williams describes how it works: "The tagua palm takes 15 years to mature before beginning to produce its ivory nuts. A palm can grow 16-18 of these seed pods every year and they take 18 months to grow. In the early stages, tagua can be drunk (it's 100% plant cellulose) and tastes like coconut water. It then hardens to a jelly that can be eaten. The jelly solidifies into a nut in the Sun. Approximately 120 nuts grow inside the pod 'compartments'."

The nut is then polished and carved and extensively used to create jewellery, buttons or ornamental items. "The jewellery has such a tactile feel and dyes so well," says Williams, donning her own bright green tagua necklace. "In one year, one tagua palm can produce as much tagua (or vegetable ivory) as the average African elephant can do in its lifetime."

There has so far been steady interest from craftspeople, but aritifical ivory has yet to take off commercially. Credit: Johanna Eckhardt/Eburo GmbH

An elephant can live 60 to 70 years. But within the lifespan of an elephant living today, the species could go extinct in the wild.

Even Mannhart suggests that in some contexts, a substitute for ivory might struggle to be accepted, citing the example of the Japanese tradition of name stamps known as Hanko. "In Japan it is very common that people don't do signatures by hand, but they have stamps made out of ivory for their names to sign documents. In the beginning we thought this was a fantastic market," he says. But his Stuttgart-based Japanese colleague disagreed. He believed that for some Japanese people, continuing to use real ivory is of huge cultural importance.

However, while Japan has one of world’s largest legal ivory markets, a recent study found that demand is now a fraction of what it once was. (Some organisations believe that despite this, not all the ivory traded there is legal.)

Recognising such limitations doesn't stop scientists from trying to find alternatives to true ivory.

Even Vollrath is having a go. Some years ago, his team at Oxford University began trials with a silk cellulose and hydroxyapatite-based ivory replacement.

Research had to halt for logistical reasons but at the time he had just finished making an artificial rhino horn using the material. Vollrath believes this was proof of concept. "I haven't given up, I've pressed pause. There's a market for artificial ivory."

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