Greetings, and thanks for visiting my blog! So you may remember me mentioning that I got a commission that called for a material I had never in my life used before or even seen. To be quite honest, I didn't even know it existed! What was that mysterious material, you ask? ELK IVORIES. Before we go any further, though, I need you to read the following DISCLAIMER:
If you have a sensitive or otherwise squeamish disposition, you may want to go read any number of my other blogs. Things are going to get a little graphic. Also, before you go on the rampage and scream at me for using ivory, elk teeth are not actually ivory, per se. That's just what everyone calls them. I'll explain that in a little bit. Bottom line: no screaming, and don't blame me if you get grossed out by some of the pictures. This concludes the disclaimer. Reading anything past this disclaimer means you consent to viewing any and all graphic images and can't sue me for anything.
Okay. Back to the originally scheduled informative session.
I was approached by a gentleman whose wife had already commissioned a piece for her sister as a Christmas gift. The mission, should I choose to accept it: make earrings out of elk ivories as a surprise gift for his wife. My first response was "what the heck are elk ivories?" My second response was "where the heck does someone get an ELK?" My third response was "mmmmm.... chili....." I answered the challenge with a resounding yes, and immediately started researching elk. I am ashamed to admit that my elk knowledge was quite lacking in comparison to my knowledge of other woodland creatures.
This, ladies and gentlemen, is an ELK:
This is not your cute little whitetail Bambi-deer that frolics in the fields and makes friends with skunks and rabbits. Oh, no. This is a GIANT DEER capable of putting you in a world of hurt and totalling an F150 pickup truck. You do not befriend elk. You do not call them cute (to their face, anyway). You respect the elk, and give them space. Lots and lots of space. Especially during the rut, which is fancy biology talk for mating season. This is because bull elk are NOT here for your problems. They are single and want to mingle. Bottom line: don't try to pet the elk. That being said, they are super cool, majestic as all-get-out, and at there are a lot of things to know about them!
First of all, there are six subspecies of elk in North America, two of which are extinct. The particular species that these ivories belonged to was most likely a Roosevelt elk, as it was hunted in the Rocky Mountains, and that's where those kind of elk live. At one time, elk used to roam the prairies, hills, and piney woods of Texas! (Man, could you imagine sitting outside the Murchison Performance Hall up there in Denton warming up on your trumpet and you end up attracting a herd of elk?! So wild.) They were driven out of Texas by cattle ranchers about a hundred or so years ago, but elk are being reintroduced out in west Texas.
Second of all, when I say elk are big, I mean BIG. A bull elk stands about five feet tall or so at the shoulder, and a cow elk stands a little shorter. A bull elk can weigh in at as much as 1100 pounds and can be 10 feet long from tip of the nose to the tail. A cow elk can weigh as much as 625 pounds and be about six feet long or so from tip of the nose to the tail. To give you an idea, if you've ever seen one of those longhorn cattle at the Ft. Worth Stockyards, a bull elk is taller and a cow elk is about as tall. Or, if you are not familiar with livestock, the average elk is taller at the shoulder than a Prius.
Now to the matter of ivories. Elk are the only true deer to have these sorts of teeth. They are vestigial TUSKS. That's right. Wayyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy back in the day there were ginormous saber toothed deer roaming unchecked over the continent. (Are you as excited about this as I am? I hope so.) These teeth grow at a place in the skull where canines grow in other mammals (like us), so technically they are considered canine teeth. They are not made out of ivory. That's just what everybody calls them because of the whole tusk thing. And before you National Geographic enthusiasts burn me in effigy, I have NOT forgotten about the several species of musk deer in Asia, but they are not really true deer, inasmuch as they don't have antlers or facial scent glands or multiple teats, but they have fangs, a gallbladder and a musk gland (which is where the scent in high-end perfumes come from. That's right, kids! That fancy French parfum you're wearing? It comes from a gland on a male musk deer located between the balls and the belly button. You're welcome.)
Okay, before I get completely carried away about relative deer anatomy, let us get to the point of this exercise: making earrings out of elk teeth. After sending several design sketches, my client decided on a simple design that would require cutting the teeth. In order to cut the teeth, I would have to properly clean the residual gum tissue and nerve endings off the teeth. HEY! I WARNED YOU THIS WASN'T FOR THE FAINT-HEARTED! Here is a picture of how they looked when I got hold of them:
Yeah, it does look pretty gnarly, doesn't it. I did some research on how to properly remove the elk bits on the outside in such a way that would not hurt the teeth, and came up with the solution: let 'em simmer in a Crock Pot for a couple of hours and then scrub them off. I have to say that all my years of cleaning out middle school bassoon bocals and clarinet mouthpieces more than prepared me for this process. Still, it was a little disconcerting scraping the cartilage off. Once I got all the meat and other bits off the roots of the teeth, I soaked them in hydrogen peroxide to both sanitize them and even out the color. Please note: if you ever get hold of anything made of dental enamel or bone, do not soak it in bleach, as that will weaken the cell structure of the material and it will crumble and break. Here is how they looked after an hour soaking in hydrogen peroxide:
Once I got them dried, it was time to cut! I didn't want to damage the teeth, so I decided to use a very fine jeweler's saw blade. I also donned my protective gear. Bone dust floats in the air like nobody's business, and you do NOT want to be breathing that mess into your lungs. Thankfully, they cut beautifully, and the smell wasn't too bad. If you use more aggressive cutting methods, the friction will cause the bone to singe and THAT is a memorable smell, let me just tell you. I used to work next door to a luthier who would cut his own bone nuts for classical guitars. Peeeeeyewwwwwwwww!
The next step was to cut bezels for these uniquely shaped objects. When researching this project (because, honestly, I had never even heard of elk ivories, let alone making jewelry out of them), I saw examples of similar earrings that had been rounded to fit bezel cups, but I wanted to keep the crown shape as true to the original material as possible, out of respect for the cow elk they belonged to. (In the course of my research, I also learned how to age and determine the sex of an elk by the shape and wear patterns on the teeth. This particular cow elk was around five and a half years old.). Here are some process pictures: (If you look closely, you can see the little bits of nerve ending in the roots and the crowns. Don't worry, I got all that stuff out before I set the crowns.)
And here is the result! I'm rather pleased with them, and I know the recipient is, too!
There you have it: the most unusual material I have made jewelry from to date! I enjoyed learning about elks and enjoyed learning about working with the material. I hope you found this blog educational as well as entertaining, and once again, thanks for stopping by! Stay tuned for further adventures in the new year!