Gem News International Gems & Gemology, Summer 2020, Vol. 56, No. 2

Fossil Ivory Update with Lee Downey

Frog and octopus carvings crafted from fossil walrus ivory.
Figure 1. Fossil walrus ivory carvings by Artifactual. The base of the octopus carving is chalcosiderite. Photos by Kevin Schumacher.

Lee Downey, owner of Artifactual (Tucson, Arizona), spoke with us in early 2020 about his 35 years in the fossil ivory carving trade and the impact of ivory bans on his business. Until recently Downey carved fossil ivory from mammoth and walrus tusks thousands of years old; he has never used elephant ivory. But legislative measures banning all ivory in response to the poaching of African elephants have diminished ivory demand.

Downey got his start in silver and turquoise and established Artifactual in the late seventies. Since then, he has lived and worked in an ivory carving village in Bali with artisans he calls “the most talented carvers in the world.” When he first arrived in Bali, they were carving bone and coconut shell. His task was to carve animals and animal skulls out of fossil ivory. “We created a trade,” he said. He showed us two of Artifactual’s current offerings (figure 1). “But now the material has become flat-out illegal in eight states.”

Since 2014, California, Hawaii, Illinois, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, and the District of Columbia have enacted prohibitions against trade in ivory. (Two other states, Oregon and Washington, have banned only ivory from living elephants.) Downey said that Hawaii’s ban in particular “tanked” the trade. Customers even in states where ivory remains legal are reluctant to purchase fossil ivory, he said.

“I understand why they’re doing it,” Downey told us. “I’d rather save all wildlife if there was a way.” But he said the effect of the bans on his business has forced him to prepare to exit the fossil ivory trade. He is selling his current ivory inventory at lower prices and not buying additional material.

Carved mammoth tusk featuring an ocean theme.
Figure 2. A mammoth tusk carved with sea life by Lee Downey. Photo by Kevin Schumacher.
Fossil ivory items by Artifactual.
Figure 3. A selection from Artifactual’s inventory of fossil ivory. Clockwise from top left: belt buckle with mammoth ivory, knife with mammoth tooth handle, belt buckle with mammoth ivory, and frog carving of fossil walrus ivory. Photo by Kevin Schumacher.

Downey showed us a mammoth tusk carved with sea life (figure 2) as well as two belt buckles featuring mammoth ivory (figure 3). All of them use material sourced from Alaska. “This washes up on beaches and comes out of gold mines,” he said. “It’s highly sought after by the knife makers. It’s got colors that elephant ivories will never have. It just keeps weathering out of the dirt.” Downey added that this ivory is at least 10,000 years old.

Mammoth ivory can be differentiated from elephant ivory by a simple field test to observe its natural grain lines. But there is no test to determine whether a specimen of walrus ivory comes from a fossil or a modern animal. According to Downey, this is a problem in the trade.

Artifactual uses fossil walrus ivory from St. Lawrence Island, Alaska. This ivory is 500 to 15,000 years old and dug by the native Yupik people. “It’s part of their income, and they own the island,” he said. “For us it’s a legitimate and ethical trade.”

Downey added that the legislation on ivory also prohibits mammoth tooth because it comes from an ivory-bearing animal. He showed us a knife with a carved mammoth tooth handle (figure 3). Knife makers are some of the biggest buyers of mammoth tooth, he said, and the bans have dramatically impacted their business.

Skull carvings by Artifactual in stainless steel (left) and Gibeon meteorite (right).
Figure 4. Left: “Alpha,” a stainless steel foundry-cast skull by Artifactual, one of six in a series. Right: “Gaia,” the second skull Downey carved from a piece of the Gibeon meteorite, has a tridymite crystal inclusion in the forehead. The geometric pattern on its surface was caused by the slow process of cooling as the meteor moved through space. Photos by Kevin Schumacher.

As a result of the decreased demand for ivory, Artifactual is moving its business to other materials, including jet, natural American turquoise and variscite, steel (figure 4, left), and meteorite. “Gaia” (figure 4, right) is carved from a piece of the Gibeon iron-nickel meteorite, which landed in prehistoric times in Namibia and is believed to be around four billion years old. The company also does a lot of business in silver.

Horned toad carved from moose antler.
Figure 5. A moose antler carving of a horned toad by Lee Downey. Photo by Duncan Pay.

Downey has also sought out materials similar to ivory but without the ethical and legal challenges. He has begun carving moose antlers naturally shed by the animals (figure 5). “The moose antler has been a really good substitute for the ivory,” he said. He also recently began carving vintage billiard balls. “We’ll carve anything that’s carvable,” he said.

Watch our video interview with Lee Downey.

Interview with Lee Downey

Erin Hogarth is a writer and editor in Learning Design and Development, and Duncan Pay is editor-in-chief of Gems & Gemology, at GIA in Carlsbad, California.