Endangered Jewelry

Humans through the ages have adorned themselves with natural materials. Over time, they have formed jewelry from almost every plant and animal species imaginable. The use of animal products for decorative purposes caused shortages and related problems even as far back as 50 A.D., when the Romans over-exploited elephant ivory from Africa. The Romans solved their shortage by switching to ivory from India instead. Such simple solutions are not available today.

In the past, natural environmental factors such as climate change caused most extinctions. Natural evolution occurs so slowly that plant and animal species often become extinct before adapting to such environmental changes. They have even less chance to adapt to the rapid changes now occurring as huge numbers of humans encroach upon and destroy habitats, chemicals ruin food and water supplies and over-hunting for sport or decorative purposes further diminishes populations. Thus, species are becoming extinct at an alarming rate. At least 500 species and subspecies have become extinct in the United States since the 1500s – with natural causes responsible for just one (National Geographic, March 1995). Scientists have predicted that during the 1990s, more than one species will vanish every hour (Endangered Species, 1988). The ramifications of losing so many species may never be known.

Most jewelry dealers and collectors realize that laws prohibit the use of materials from endangered animal and plant species. But these laws are amended frequently, the affected species change and more than one regulatory agency has jurisdiction over such matters. Thus, it can become quite confusing to keep up. Also, since saving animal species is an increasingly popular cause, many people now consider it inappropriate to wear (or even eat) animal products. Customers who aren’t sure which materials have come from endangered species may shy away from any jewelry that appears to be made from an animal product.

Ivory, coral and tortoiseshell are the three jewelry materials most often affected by these laws. This article will focus on how the laws affect each and provide general information to help collectors deal knowledgeably with endangered species jewelry.


Corals in their natural environment look like beautiful rocks or exotic plants, but they are in fact animals. Most spend their entire lives in warm ocean waters anchored to reefs near the water’s surface, but some varieties live in deeper waters.

Reef creation and growth are slow processes; it may take a year for a reef to grow less than an inch. Unfortunately, reef destruction is quick and easy, so coral is rapidly disappearing. Humans cause most of the harm through mechanical destruction, water pollution or even scuba diving. In 1997, a ship 12 miles off the coast of Key West rammed into and severely damaged one of the last remaining coral reefs in that area. Fires and oil from the Gulf War caused widespread visible destruction to the coral reefs there.

Coral was first placed on a CITES list in 1985 and is now on CITES Appendix II. (See sidebar, “The Laws and Exemptions,” page 126. CITES stands for Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species.)

Both reef coral and deep sea coral are used for jewelry. Italians have carved deep sea coral into cameos for hundreds of years (Heritage February 1992). Like reef coral, the supply of deep water coral is almost exhausted. The early Italian carvers, as well as many collectors today, consider a deep red-orange shade the most desirable.

Coral also is used extensively in “ethnic” or non-European jewelry. Popularity among Europeans and Americans comes and goes. According to Vivienne Becker in Antique and Twentieth Century Jewellery, coral rode the crest of a fashion wave around the middle of the 19th century, then disappeared from fashionable wardrobes, made a brief appearance in the 1920s and finally reappeared in modern jewelry.

Some people have attributed special powers to coral. The Victorians, for example, used strands of coral beads to “protect” their children from evil spirits. In addition to Victorian pieces, coral is seen in Art Nouveau and Art Deco items. As part of the contemporary jewelry scene in the United States, both Native Americans and Hawaiians use coral.

Identifying coral. Coral is generally lighter in weight and warmer in temperature compared with other gemstones of similar sizes. In addition to reds and oranges, it occurs in black, blue, pink, white and gold. Sometimes it isn’t carved, but left in its natural branch-like formations. A finished piece can have either a matte or a polished surface. Coral’s porosity and grain lines distinguish it from glass and plastic substitutes. Natural coral beads in a strand will not be identical to each other, as is often the case with imitations. Of course, mold lines also indicate the piece in question is not natural.

Except for blue and black specimens, which are composed of a horn-like substance, coral is mainly calcium carbonate. A drop of lemon juice placed on it will effervesce, with tiny bubbles resembling those in a carbonated beverage visible under a loupe. (Be sure to rinse lemon juice off with water immediately after testing because the juice can damage the piece.)


Several types of animal and vegetable ivory are used for jewelry, but elephant ivory is the species sought the most. Most elephant ivory comes from African elephants, because Asian elephants have much smaller tusks. Asian elephants were first placed on a CITES list in 1975 and African elephants in 1977. Both are currently on CITES Appendix I.

Unlike CITES, which lists all elephants as endangered, the United States Endangered Species Act (ESA) lists the Asian elephant as endangered and the African elephant as threatened. Therefore, it is legal in the U.S. to buy and sell African elephant ivory that is already in this country. However, it is impossible for laypersons to differentiate between African and Asian ivory.

Africa had about 1.3 million elephants in 1979, but within a decade the population had decreased to 600,000. This decrease occurred in part because of competition for living space between humans and elephants, along with economic and political instability that spurred more killing of the animals for their tusks. Money earned from tusk sales soon became the basis for an underground economy.

Today, some African countries – including South Africa, Zimbabwe, Botswana and Namibia – have relatively large elephant populations because preservation efforts have been successful and they have to cull their herds. On June 19, 1997, CITES signatories meeting in Zimbabwe voted to relax the international ivory ban. Several African countries now may sell ivory to Japan, but trade restrictions generally still stand.

Elephant ivory has been used worldwide in jewelry for thousands of years. Indians and Africans used it as lip and ear plugs, and it was believed to possess magical powers. Its presence in ethnic jewelry is dominant, especially in bangles and armlets from Africa and India. The Victorians used it to carve cameos as well as hand and flower motif items. Later, René Lalique and others used it in Art Nouveau pieces. Many contemporary pieces are on the market; according to Traffic USA, more than $20 million worth of commercial ivory products, mostly jewelry, entered the United States in 1988.

Identifying elephant ivory. Elephant ivory feels greasy and smooth. It is a creamy white color, which darkens with age. Bone, often confused with elephant ivory, is usually a brighter white color, is drier and more brittle and exhibits porosity.

The most unique and distinguishing feature of elephant ivory is the presence of little beige-colored lines. However, if a piece is ornately carved, these markings are difficult to see. By comparing bone with ivory from other animals, vegetable ivory or plastic made to look like elephant ivory, one can learn to tell the difference.

Collectors and dealers often ask about fossil mammoth ivory. Mammoth ivory comes from long extinct animals and is recovered from the permafrost of Alaska and the former Soviet Union where it has lain preserved for 20,000 to 40,000 years. Distinguishing mammoth ivory from elephant ivory requires some knowledge, but is not difficult. According to John Rose of 2 Roses Studio in Tustin, Calif., mammoth ivory is a deeper brown than the usual light beige color of elephant ivory. Also, as reported in “Fossil Mammoth Ivory: A New Choice For Jewelers” (JCK, August 1991), the difference is apparent when the Schreger line angles are studied. These are the “engine turned” or small brownish bisecting lines seen in both elephant and fossil mammoth ivory. The angles in elephant ivory are obtuse 120º angles, while those in mammoth ivory are 90º or less.

Collecting and trading in mammoth ivory (but not removing it from federal property) are legal.


All seven species of sea turtles were placed on the CITES Appendix I list in 1975. The material used in jewelry comes from the shell of one of these species, the hawksbill sea turtle. Its lovely shell has been this animal’s path to endangerment. Its meat isn’t eaten, and it offers no other usable by-products. The hawksbills still remaining live in the Pacific and Indian Oceans, as well as warmer Atlantic waters.

Trading in tortoiseshell is lucrative. Enforcing compliance with the regulations, even among some participating CITES nations, has been difficult. Both the “Facts” pamphlet from the Fish and Wildlife Service and the World Wildlife Fund’s “Buyer Beware” pamphlet remind travelers of its endangered status.

Many decorative articles, inlaid furniture, dresser sets, belts, combs and jewelry rely on tortoiseshell for their interesting character and beauty. A technique known as piqué, originally used in the 17th century, was applied to jewelry and popularized in the mid to late 19th century. Tortoiseshell was softened with heat, then inlaid with gold and/or silver in floral or geometric patterns. The technique using inlaid strips of metal cut into ornate designs is called piqué posé. Piqué point refers to dots or other small geometric shapes inlaid in an overall pattern. In addition to Victorian pieces, some Mexican jewelry is set with tortoiseshell that has been inlaid with metal or mother-of-pearl.

Identifying tortoiseshell. Plastic is a common simulant for tortoiseshell. Plastic usually has a regular and repeating pattern, whereas genuine tortoiseshell has a random pattern. When viewed with a loupe, natural tortoiseshell looks like many small dots and has no mold lines. When warmed with hot water, tortoiseshell smells like wet fur or hair.

Jewelry made with coral, ivory or tortoiseshell is a joy to behold. Those who own jewelry made of these wondrous organic materials should treasure them. With proper care and protection today, our grandchildren may not only enjoy the antique pieces saved for them, but also will have their own sources of these materials.

Sheryl Gross Shatz is the author of What’s It Made Of?, A Jewelry Materials Identification Guide. She is currently working toward her Certificate in Gemology at Santiago Canyon College in Orange, Calif. She attends Christie Romero’s Antique and Vintage Jewelry/Materials Identification classes as her assistant. She is a staff member of the annual Antique and Period Jewelry & Gemstone Conference in Orono, Maine, and is a member of the Society of Jewelry Historians.


The landmark Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), signed in 1973, is a wildlife treaty in which the United States and more than 120 other countries have pledged to protect endangered species worldwide. CITES encourages its signatory nations to criminalize trade in endangered species and their products. CITES also regularly publishes a list of “Endangered” (Appendix I) and “Threatened” (Appendix II) plant and animal species. An endangered species is in danger of extinction; a threatened species is likely to become endangered soon.

The United States Endangered Species Act (ESA), 16 U.S.C. §§ 1531-1544, enacted on Dec. 28, 1973, prohibits a wide range of activities including the importing and exporting of all “Endangered” and most “Threatened” species. In addition, the Department of the Interior and the Fish and Wildlife Service jointly publish an Endangered and Threatened Species List [50 CFR 17.11, 17.12.]. It lists hundreds of species, including many used in jewelry.

The ESA makes it illegal for any person subject to U.S. jurisdiction to import, export, deliver, receive, carry, transport or ship in interstate or foreign commerce for commercial purposes all “Endangered” and most “Threatened” species. Additionally, it is forbidden to sell or offer for sale in interstate or foreign commerce; “take” (harm, harass, pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill, trap, capture or collect) within the United States; or possess, ship, deliver, carry, transport, sell or receive unlawfully taken protected wildlife. (See 16 U.S.C. § 1538.)

Penalties for knowingly violating the ESA include confiscation and possible forfeiture of the items. Civil fines can reach up to $25,000 for each violation; criminal convictions can result in fines up to $50,000 per violation, plus imprisonment up to a year.

Copies of the ESA, related laws, and the Endangered Species Lists are easily obtained. Most libraries have this information and it is available on the Internet, http://www.fws.gov/~r9endspp/endspp.html.

Jewelry exemptions. Two exemptions to the Endangered Species Act are of special importance to antique and period jewelry dealers and collectors:

(1) The Pre-Act Exemption states that the prohibitions in the Act do not apply to any fish or wildlife held in captivity or a controlled environment on Dec. 28, 1973, provided that such holding and any subsequent holding or use of the fish or wildlife was not in the course of a commercial activity. In other words, ESA prohibitions do not apply to an elephant ivory brooch which was in a collection prior to Dec. 28, 1973, and has not been offered for sale. See 16 U.S.C. § 1539 (f).

(2) The Antiquities Exemption states that ESA prohibitions do not apply to an article 100 years old or older that is composed in whole or in part of any endangered or threatened species materials and has not been repaired or modified with any such species materials on or after Dec. 28, 1973. So, if one can prove that a tortoiseshell locket is 100 years old and has not been repaired with tortoiseshell since Dec. 28, 1973, the prohibitions of the Act do not apply. See 16 U.S.C. § 1539 (h).

The burden of proof falls upon the person requesting an exemption. Old photographs of the jewelry, original advertisements for the pieces, similar pieces pictured in a book or magazine, fitted boxes or paper tags or a dated sales receipt are all helpful documentation to prove antiquity. Sometimes it is necessary to have a qualified appraiser attest to the age of the jewelry.


CITES and ESA regulations are both confusing and somewhat ineffectively enforced. If you wish to comply with relevant laws, consider these points.

  • You may buy and sell endangered species jewelry if the pieces are more than 100 years old and have not been repaired or modified using endangered species materials on or after Dec. 28, 1973.

  • You may not buy and sell endangered species jewelry made since Dec. 28, 1973. It may be legal to buy and sell within the U.S. jewelry made since Dec. 28, 1973, that contains material from species considered “threatened,” such as African elephants under the Endangered Species Act and coral under CITES. Though legal, however, such trade does add to pressures on threatened populations and is not encouraged.

  • Endangered species jewelry less than 100 years old but made before Dec. 28, 1973, falls into a gray area. It certainly is legal to own such jewelry, as long as it was acquired before – and was not being held for commercial purposes on or after – that date. If such jewelry has been privately held (i.e., in a family’s private collection) since it was originally sold and was not being offered for sale on Dec. 28, 1973, it may be legal to buy it from that original owner (or family), but may not be legal if the intent is to resell it. Further, it may be illegal to import such jewelry into some other countries or even some states within the U.S.

Publications of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and from the World Wildlife Fund provide further information.


Vendors in foreign countries may tell potential customers, “It’s dead already, so it doesn’t matter,” or “This animal was raised for its products, so it’s OK.” But bringing endangered species

materials into the U.S. without a permit is illegal; fines and confiscation are real possibilities. To avoid penalties:

  1. Plan ahead. Read the regulations and pamphlets prepared specifically for travelers and importers before traveling abroad.

  2. Understand that to bring certain species into the U.S. requires an export document from the country of origin and an import permit from the Fish and Wildlife Service.

  3. Also be aware that most states have their own endangered species laws. Never more lenient than their federal counterparts, they may be even more restrictive.

  4. Be aware that one port within each customs region is designated as an approved entry port for endangered species materials. Plan to re-enter through such a port.

Other federal laws also restrict imports into the U.S.:

  • The Lacey Act (16 U.S.C. §§ 3371-3378) prohibits importing animal species taken, possessed, transported or sold in violation of foreign law.

  • The Marine Mammal Protection Act (16 U.S.C. §§ 1361-1407) prohibits importing marine mammals.

  • The African Elephant Conservation Act (16 U.S.C. §§ 4201-4245) prohibits importing ivory products from any country and permits only non-commercial import of whole tusks from legally hunted elephants.

  • The Wild Bird Conservation Act (16 U.S.C. §§ 1409) regulates and prohibits the importing of many exotic bird species.

Trade in endangered species materials is hard to control. Most dealers and collectors comply with the laws; one auction house even prints ESA information inside its catalogs. Still, many illegal pieces enter the market through poachers, importers, dealers, private sources and auction houses, in violation of the applicable regulations.