Wednesday, November 5, 2008

An Ethical Problem


I've had an ethical issue sitting in my bead drawer since, well, since I had a bead drawer. Although I have only been designing jewelry for a short time, like many women I have had an interest in jewelry since I was a child, an interest that probably started with my many forays into my mother's jewelry box. I remember spending time with my mother examining the jewelry she collected as a young woman being a "special occasion". Her box was always interesting, and I loved each piece: an amethyst cocktail ring, a finely carved jade Buddha, porcelain rose earrings and enamel pieces with delicate mother-of-pearl inlay were among the treasures I remember.

When I became a teenager, she gave most of the jewelry to me, including this bracelet. My mother purchased this piece when she was traveling in Japan as a young woman, some time in the 1950s. These lovely hand-carved beads are genuine ivory. Mom was doing a little cleaning a few years ago and stumbled upon the box in my old room. Since the elastic had gone on the bracelet, she brought it with her when visiting and gave it to me, thinking that I might like to use the beads for other projects. And they've sat around, first in a drawer - and then in my bead box, once I started a bead box - ever since.

I love these beads - they always remind me of my childhood (and back then the elastic was still good, and I remember wearing them quite happily) and of images of my mother as a young woman. Even though they cannot be classified as antique - I believe a piece has to be pre-1948 to be considered antique - they have been in my family for over 50 years, and they are definitely pre-ban ivory. Still, I have qualms about what to do with them. I initially thought that, since I know for a fact that this ivory is vintage, it wouldn't be a problem to use them to design new jewelry. However, to be honest, I don't want to do anything that might be construed as promoting the desirability of ivory. Due to the sheer sentimental value of the beads, I do not intend to discard or destroy them. However, I've been on the fence about what to do with them for a while, now.

Does anyone else have vintage pieces like this - toroiseshell or ivory, for example - that you've acquired or inherited from family members or have simply had in your possession for a long time? If so, if you have similar feelings about these pieces, what did you decide to do with them? I'd be interested in hearing your stories.

30 comments:

Andrew Thornton said...

Cynthia bought an owl in Tucson that turned out to be a pre- ivory ban piece from the early 1900's. Apparently it was illegal to smuggle them out of the country, but somehow they found their way to Tucson and eventually into Cynthia's hands.

I don't think there's a problem with it. For one, it was before the ban. Secondly, it would be a waste to destroy the piece out of ethics. If the animal has already sacrificed its life, the object should be honored.

And I don't think there's a problem with using the piece in jewelry... especially if it's not in any publications. If anyone asks, you could say it's just resin.

Cherish your memories. Leave the guilt behind.

Bev's Jewelry said...

I agree with Andrew. Obviously you are not going to sell the bracelet. If you were that might be different. Enjoy the bracelet and your memories. Bev

Christina said...

I agree with Andrew and Bev. Fix the bracelet or use the beads in a new piece for yourself. Enjoy your memories.

LLYYNN said...

One way to think about it - because it's the thoughts that are troubling you, it seems - is that the ivory came from a tusk and time before the ban, and the ban is in place to protect living animals. By wearing the bracelet you are honoring the past and your story within it. You can tell if it's truly ivory by close inspection under magnification - you should be able to see some of the ring structure of the tusk, and real ivory will warm in your hands. Perhaps it is bakelite or another synthetic and not really ivory. You can always take a mold off one of the pieces and use the design with other materials if you liked them.

Dave Robertson said...

Melissa, I don't have an ethical dilemma to contribute, but I want to chip in & say this is one of the more fascinating blog posts I've read lately! Thank you for your efforts!

--Dave
at Rings & Things

Four Tails Lampwork said...

I will join the chorus of agreement. The piece has sentimental value, and destroying it will do nothing except continue the wastage. Instead, make something out of it and treasure your family memories.

I have a spectacular pre-ban Indian ivory necklace, and I wear it on special occasions. When people ask I say that it is real, that it is pre-ban, and I ask if it is worth an elephant (no). In other words, the necklace becomes a teaching opportunity as well as a repository of family memory. Maybe yours can, too.

Polly said...

I agree with Andrew's statement, "If the animal has already sacrificed its life, the object should be honored."
I would never buy a brand-new fur coat, or encourage anyone else to, but I'll happily (albeit only occasionally) wear the little fur cape that my great-grandmother gave to my mom on her 16th birthday. Throwing it away, would be worse than wearing it. But I'll admit I'd feel bad if I were to make a profit off it in some way!
So I'd say keep those beads for personal use, create something you enjoy out of them, and then only wear them when you'll have time to talk with people who might have questions about what you're wearing. Don't wear them to a busy craft show where you might not get a chance to explain the history behind them, and your ethical dilemma about wearing them at all.

Melissa J. Lee said...

Wow, thank you everyone for commenting.

Andrew - you voice your sentiments eloquently as always. I think you are right. I am probably simply over-thinking this issue. I certainly agree that destroying the beads at this point would be even more of a shame, since the elephant is already gone.

Thanks, Bev and Christina!

Llynn, I believe this is real ivory and not bakelite - I have examined the flat side of the beads, and it does seem to have some telltale marks of tusk formation on it. I love your idea of taking a mold of the beads and making something with them - thank you!

Thanks, Dave, and thanks for re-tweeting the post! I debated last night whether it would really be a good idea to discuss this issue on the blog. I'm glad I did.

Hi, four tails lampwork - thanks for sharing your story (and for visiting)! I like the way you handle wearing your necklace.

Hi Polly - I know what you mean. I felt the same way, but then I started worrying that wearing/using the beads still could be construed as promoting ivory, which I'm not interested in doing. As I mentioned above, I'm probably just overthinking the issue. I think you're right about the choosing appropriate times and places to wear the beads.

Karen Lizzie said...

I wonder if part of your concern over this bracelet could be that you feel people may judge for wearing it because it is ivory. However I suspect that few people today would realise that the bracelet is ivory. I have a similar carved bracelet which I have hod for around 20 years, but it is made from carved bone, to an untrained eye there is no obvious difference. In all the times I have worn my bracelet no-one ever asked what it was made from.

The bracelet is as others has said from a time when its production was not considered wrong and with such a sentimental connection for you it would be a shame not to wear it. It is a lovely thing.

Jean said...

I have an ivory bracelet with gold capped ends brought back from South Africa for me by my parents,and a smaller tortoise shell bracelet, which I broke. Typical. I have lived a life where I beheld the general masses of people I was tripping over were pretty much parading around with those scrimshaw covered basket pocketbooks which come from Nantucket or somewhere and are a signal to other people who have them that you are in a certain kind of group. I don;t know what the heck is on half of those! It sure looks real!

I figure your dilemma is only this:

Would you ever break this bracelet up and sell pieces of it, repurposed, in other jewlery?
As we all know you would never do that, because of the kind of person you are, just enjoy the memories you are so fortunate to have of your young mother discovering this when she was travelling, and then wearing her treasure, which you still love.

Cindy Lietz, Polymer Clay Tutor said...

My grandma traveled all over the world when I was a child. I have tortoise shell bracelet and a tiny carved elephant pendant of ivory. I have not worn them for years for the exact same reasons.

Yesterday on the news I saw that there was a huge auction of tusks that were apparently taken from dead animals and stored in a huge warehouse. Because of this, I suspect there will be real ivory jewelry back on the market again. Let's hope it does not lead to more poaching.

julie said...

This is a little different, but in case you're leaning in this kind of direction--you could consider donating some ivory to organizations that use such pieces in their educational efforts against elephant poaching, or to a zoo or teachers or hands-on museums that would like to do the same. You could craft some beautiful jewelry using the vintage ivory and donate it to an elephant rescue charity to be auctioned or sell it yourself and donate your profit to the charity.

Hippie-granola, I know, and I do certainly also think you're within your rights to enjoy your own jewelry however you'd like, but it is nice, I think, when we can use such an animal's sacrifice to help others of its kind.

Gail W. said...

My mother gave me a few pieces of jewelry,they are not the kind of jewelry that the other females in my family would want.One piece was was a necklace of ivory.I took it to jewelers to check it out,and yes,it's real,probably 50 yrs. or so.I don't know what to do with it.I could never sell it &I don't wear large ivory beads & carvings around my neck!So I've decided to talk to mom and see how she feels about me taking it apart,adding some other gemstones &that way I could easily have a necklace,bracelet,earrings,and probably have some left.But I still feel wrong about this,she bought it as it is,that's what she liked.I don't know what to do about this.Any suggestions?

Melissa J. Lee said...

Karen, You make a good point about people not being able to recognize ivory as opposed to other types of bone or Bakelite or what have you. However, I think the issue is not so much whether people will judge me unfavorably for wearing the piece, but whether my conscience can stand to wear the piece. Even though it's vintage, there's a school of thought that says if you wear it, you're really promoting it as something desirable to be used as adornment, and that's what I haven't been comfortable with. Still, given all of the factors involved, I'm leaning more towards using them and just wearing them privately, for the family memories. And if others don't have a clue that they are ivory, then so much the better.

Melissa J. Lee said...

Cindy, that's interesting news about the auction. I know several countries had stockpiles of such tusks - millions of dollars worth - and that they had been seeking permission to sell them for several years. I hadn't realized that the any sale had gone through, though.

Melissa J. Lee said...

Jean,

I always love your stories! I think you are right - I will probably do as you suggest.

Melissa J. Lee said...

Julie, That's such an original idea - I had never thought of that. If I break the bracelet up to design something new, I would probably keep some of the beads and try to donate others - which would retain the family memories, but still be beneficial from an educational standpoint. Thank you for the suggestion!

Melissa J. Lee said...

Hi Gail, I would talk to your Mom. To my mind, breaking up and old piece is not a problem. It reminds me of quilters who use fabrics with history from their families - piece of old clothes, etc. - to create something new and beautiful. It extends the life of the piece and makes it even more cherished. Just my two cents, though.

Creative Stash said...

This is a very thoughtful post. I enjoyed reading it as well as all the suggestions. Andrew's comment is very eloquently put and Julie's suggestion about donation possibilities is insightful. I think making a piece for you to cherish your memories and possibly use any remaining beads to benefit an organization is fabulous idea. Thanks for the good read.

Leslie Todd said...

I have a very non-PC sealskin fur coat which has been in my family since the late 1930's. The coat was already old when my grandmother traded her pearl wedding ring (from a failed marriage) for it. It was a full length coat. My grandmother was a professional tailor and she shortened the coat to fingertip length with 3/4 sleeves due to bad places in the fur. My mother gave it to me when I was 17. I still wear it occasionally for formal events, although the weather is seldom cold enough here. It has a lot of sentimental value for me. On the other hand, I'd never buy a new one.

I'd keep the ivory and make heirloom jewelry for your family. I like the idea of making molds for use with resin, polymer, or metal clay for use in your jewelry to sell.

Items like this are part of our history.

Melissa J. Lee said...

Hi Kristen, Thanks for visiting! I've really loved the discussion this post has generated. And to think, I almost didn't write on this topic, because I thought people would find it too boring...

Melissa J. Lee said...

Hi Leslie, I agree - I never had an intention to simply discard the beads. They bring back such happy memories. I like Lynn's idea, too, to make a mold from them.

gemstonebeads said...

I agree with Andrew and Bev. Fix the bracelet or use the beads in a new piece for yourself. view bracelets and other gemstone beads at http://www.j-beads.com/ find memorable precious beads and jewelry on wholesale prices.

Asombroso said...

It's a very hard decision. I also have some ivory jewelry that my mom gave me, pre ban, and they are really beautiful, but just the thought of the poor elephant makes me put it away. My grandmother also was a fur tailor, so we do have a lot of furs and fur coats stored, even one fit for me, but I can not wear it. The coat is at my mom's house. I really don't have any suggestion to make, but I'm sure you'll find one out.

Carola.

Anonymous said...

Why don't you make faux ivory copy to show and keep the original as a keepsake for yourself. I think that given the look of the original that you would easily be able to make a mold and then do a faux ivory copy.

Anonymous said...

I have been researching Ivory beads as I come by them from time to time at the flea market and want to know more about them. Legal wise, if the Ivory jewelry or tusks were already in this country pre CITES, it is legal to buy and sell within the US, but it is not legal to sell it outside the country, and not legal to import from elsewhere these days, as they could say that it is pre CITES, and who could tell you otherwise? It was made before the ban and you have happy memories to go with it, it would be a complete waste of the animal's life not to honor it by wearing them, if you don't, the animal was already possibly killed only for it's tusks, it's just as dead if you don't wear the beads as it is if you do wear them, and if you destroy them altogether, then it will truly have been a wasted life without even that to mark it's presence and beauty on the planet.
Poaching elephants only for it's tusks is wrong of course, but there are also legal ways that elephants may be culled, and the CITES covenant is actually leading to destruction by elephants in their natural environment, as more people build homes etc, and they are running around trashing people's houses, and attacking people because the herds are getting too big in some places. It's like in the suburban US when too many deer lead to car crashes and trashed gardens because the residents don't want the hunters to thin the herds, only over there, the "deer" are as big as a small room, and weigh several tons. The pendulum is swinging in the other direction now, and the government in the areas affected needs to figure out ways to legally cull the herds, provide the meat to the population, and figure out what to do with their stockpiles of Ivory which is legally obtained in their country. Although the purpose was to keep these herds from being decimated in the manner of the American Bison, stewardship sometimes means killing them, now the Bison population has been reclaimed to a point where I can get a nice Bison steak at the supermarket once in awhile, they are still protected, but now legally available as a food source. There is even a farm near my house where they raise Bison. Apparently in some places in Africa, stewardship of elephant populations is harming them by protecting them too much, at a risk and cost of human habitation and life, and because the herds are growing too big to supply food in their region for all of them. Granted that this is a good argument for zero population growth on the human end of it, and that should be addressed as well. Imbalance is imbalance, and if they are overprotected, it's still an imbalance, and a happy medium must be found. It's actually possible in the future that there will be legal importation and sale of Ivory once again during special sales of stockpiles, the question is how to go about it, and how to document the tusks so as to insure they have been legally culled and exported / imported. Promoting Ivory as a gem may actually be a good thing for indigenous populations that may have legal stockpiles of Ivory they need to move on, and cottage industries that could use the cash from selling legal, documented native crafts. That is not to mention that they will die of natural causes eventually, and what to do with the tusks of one that has died naturally. While you don't want to support the illegal poaching of Ivory, there may actually come a time when it will become legal to import through some channels again, with the proper documentation, and there may actually come a time when this will actually be a good thing for herds and indigenous populations who would benefit from the sale of it. So there is the other side of the story. If you are uncomfortable making the beads into something to sell, if you like them, and have good memories from them, I see no reason why you shouldn't honor the animal they came from by continuing to enjoy them.

Laboutik Jewelry said...

even i used to play with my sister’s old jewelry during my childhood. They were good days. I like your collection too.

Beacab.com said...

We all have done this in our childhood. You can make some new jewelry with the bracelet parts.

Julie Rose said...

I was glad to find your comments as I have a similar dilemma. As a jewelry designer in New York City in the 80's I bought legally culled Ivory beads and cabachons. The finished collection was sold in Saks Fifth Avenue and other fine retailers at the time so Im sure if it was legal to sell it then, it is legal now. But how to market it? Where to sell it?
Id love to share/sell these with other artists, but Im thinking my best bet is to make a few one of a kind pieces and save them to sell at retail. I wouild be interested to hear others opinion.
Thanks so much
Julie Rose

Anonymous said...

Not sure if this blog is still active, but I have, I believe an ivory bracelet that my mother bought maybe in the 80s for herself, but no longer wears... I certainly will not wear it... and was wondering what to do with it, so I googled and it brought me to this blog... I was thinking of burying the piece... giving it a burial... I don't want to keep it because of the negative feelings I get from having it... or maybe I can give it a sea-burial and just toss it in the ocean? such a dilemma over a piece of jewelry... :/