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TAGUA: IVORY REPLACEMENT (article first published : 2005-11-11)

How could a new craft material help save the elephants in Africa, preserve pristine rainforest in South America, and help curtail the production of cocaine in Colombia? The Tagua nut has the potential to achieve all these things, while supplying carvers with a replacement material for animal ivory.

Sometimes called vegetable ivory, the Tagua nut is often mistaken for the real thing. Its texture, colour, durability, and firmness are virtually identical to the animal product. The only thing that limits it is its size. The nut can occasionally grow as large as a grapefruit, but is normally the size of a large plum or chicken egg. Crafters in South America use dust from the nut to make a glue for seamless joins.

Tagua nuts grow on an endangered palm tree (Phytelaphas Macrocarpa) exclusively on the Pacific coast of Colombia, Panama and Ecuador. These areas are virgin rainforest, and the nuts are harvested after they are ripe and have fallen to the ground. This means no damage is done to these areas in the production process. The area is notorious for terrorists who earn their living by protecting the producers of the cocaine and then trafficking cocaine.

If the Tagua industry takes off, the areas where the palms grow will be protected from clearing for the cultivation of “coca”. These environmental, and crime preventing advantages are a great plus for the product.

The Tagua industry does have an interesting history. The vegetable ivory was used to make the buttons on US military uniforms in the First World War but with the increased popularity, and reduced costs of plastics, the product virtually disappeared. It is still popular with carvers in Japan, but increasingly rare. Ecuador has maintained the industry to a certain extent, but it remains relatively latent.

Alain Misrachi is attempting to reinvigorate the industry and initiate an export market. He owns a button factory in the capital of Colombia, Bogotá, and has converted many of his machines and employees to the production of Tagua. Although he still makes ivory buttons, he has diversified to include bracelets, necklaces, rings, ear-rings, candlesticks, board games, and various other decorative objects. He is involved in every step of the production, from harvest to packaging and exporting the finished product.

Alain says that although his products are not hand carved sculptures, the nut is a perfect material for many kinds of artists. ”The nut has a hollow in the middle with a small canal running to its base, but this can be avoided when carving,” he says. “We export to any country in the world and can custom make products on request.”

The seed needs to be dried naturally to separate it from its shell. If it is dried in an oven the final product becomes brittle. Once separated from the shell it has a dark grey skin which must be removed to reveal the beautiful ivory colour. To do this, Alain uses what looks like a huge cement mixer. In this he puts the nuts and a mixture of water and sand. He leaves them to spin overnight and in the morning the skin has been removed. With a bit of polishing the nut has a fantastic finish. If you leave them for less time in the machine, you achieve a matted look which is also very appealing to contrast the polish. It is also possible to dye the nut if you require a different colour. This process reveals the structure and veins of the pure cellulose material giving each nut an individual aspect and a natural look.

“It is a fantastic material to work with”, says Alain Misrachi. “My motivations for starting and continuing in this craft business were mainly environmental. The benefits of this product are enormous. It not only replaces animal ivory and hence helps protect the elephant, but it employs many people and prevents the guerrillas from encouraging farmers to cultivate drugs.”

Tagua nuts could be used for just about all the products that were formally made from animal ivory. It is environmentally friendly and a handsome adornment for other hand crafts. One big market possibility is surfing jewellery, as is the environmental marketing angle.

The Tagua is an exciting product that is a pleasure to work with, has a beautiful finish, various applications, and enormous benefits in many areas. – Ross Mackenzie

This article originally appeared in “Craft Victoria”, a regional Australian magazine. Ross Mackenzie is a freelance writer based in Australia with credits from a variety of publications, recently including 9-1-1, Wingspan, and Miniature Donkey Talk. Alain Misrachi can be contacted by email on info@latagueria.com




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