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Tooth and Horn Carving

Generally speaking "tooth and horn carving" refers to objects carved out of animal teeth and horns, and in the circle of collectors, it refers specifically to works carved out of ivory and rhinoceros horns. Ivory is naturally beautiful, white and soft, and is therefore very exquisite and full of artistic charm; Rhinoceros horn carving is famous for its rarity and great value.

Origin and Development

Ivory carving is one of China's oldest arts and examples of skillfully carved ivory have been found in tombs as far back as the Shang Dynasty (18th -12th century BC) kings; these pieces are so well designed and executed that they suggest a long previous development, probably going back to prehistoric times. Dozens of ivory carvings were excavated from a site of Hemudu Culture about 7,000 years ago.

During the Shang and Zhou dynasties, tooth carving gradually became prosperous. By the Tang (618-907) and Song (960-1279) dynasties, tooth and horn carving was much more sophisticated in terms of both technique and craftsmanship. In the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), the carving became very popular, while the carving style tended to be simple and smooth.

In the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), due to the emergence and development of capitalism, the handicraft industry and businesses began to prosper, and western culture was gradually introduced into China. People's cultural and aesthetic consciousness was gradually enhanced and the tastes of the royal court and feudal officials increased demand for tooth and horn carvings, triggering the unprecedented development of the handicraft during the period. As a result, many skillful craftsmen emerged, producing a large number of beautiful tooth and horn carving works. However, due to the shortage of raw materials, rhinoceros horn carving only enjoyed a short period of prosperity during the reigns of Emperors Yongzheng and Qianlong.

During modern times, the world has run into a more serious shortage of tooth and horn resources. With increased awareness of the impact ivory trade has on endangered species, the protection of wild animals has developed and many countries, including China, have forbidden the auction of tooth and horn carvings. This means that the carving will become more valuable articles for collection, enjoying a great potential for appreciation.

As we all know, elephants play a fundamental role in maintaining biological diversity and shaping a healthy bush environment and rhinoceroses are also an endangered species. To protect endangered species, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) has triggered a global ban on the related trade. And, China has also gone on the record against illegal trading of endangered species.

In this concern, tooth and horn carving is no longer practiced in China nowadays. However, related artworks passed down from the history still held an important position among Chinese traditional crafts, and the techniques used are also employed to make other handicrafts.

Collection and Maintenance

Tooth and horn carvings are made from organic substances and are thus very delicate. Besides being fragile to the damage caused by external causes the artworks are also sensitive to temperature, humidity and illumination. Changes of temperature will make the artworks expand or contract, resulting in distortion, cracking and peeling. Unstable humidity will make them either lose or absorb water, resulting into expansion or contraction. It is better to place ornaments made of tooth and horn carving in a relatively humid environment, because dryness may result in cracking while too much humidity will cause mildew. Generally speaking, tooth and horn carvings stay good in temperature between 15 to 25 degrees and humidity levels of between 55% and 65%. Effected by light, teeth and horns are prone to chemical changes, and so their carvings should be kept in the shade.

If mildew appears on the surface of tooth and horn carvings due to improper maintenance, it needs to be removed immediately. Usually, washing these articles in diluted citric acid or weak oxalic acid is effective, otherwise diluted ammonia can neutralize residual acid. Finally the artifacts should be cleaned in distilled water, dry them gently with a piece of clean cloth and air them in the shade. Dusts and feculences will make tooth and horn carvings age and metamorphose, so it is necessary to wipe them often and keep the articles clean. Tooth and horn carvings with cracking should not be washed in water, but dry cleaning with soap containing 1% white spirit or Trichloro ethane solution is effective. After the solution volatilizes, use a solvent to wipe off the residual soap on the surface and then wax polish and burnish the articles.

Carving Techniques

In ancient times there were several techniques employed in tooth and horn carving, mainly including hollowing and openwork carving, weaving, micro carving, and inlaying.

Hollowing and openwork carving was the most common technique used in industrial arts, and the most representative work is the Ivory Compression Ball made of hollowing and openwork carving, which is the unique quintessence of China.

Weaving is the process of making cloth, rugs, blankets, and other products by crossing two sets of threads over and under each other. Usually, weavers use threads spun from natural fibers like cotton, silk, and wool and synthetic fibers such as nylon and Orlon. But thin, narrow strips of almost any flexible material can be woven. In ivory carving, ivory is made into several even thin strips, and the strips are then woven into different patterns.

The technique of micro-carving refers generally to the engraving of infinitesimal characters on ivory the size of a single human hair. The artist engaged in this unique craft cannot see the work he is doing but must rely on feel. The technique is therefore sometimes described as "carving by one's will".

Inlaying is the process of ornamenting a surface by setting into it material of different color or substance, usually in such a manner as to preserve a continuous plane. Inlay is employed in connection with a great variety of objects, both of major architectural character and of minor furnishing and decorative function, and makes use of a wide range of materials, such as wood, stone, ivory, glass, metal, mother-of-pearl, and tortoiseshell.

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