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Did you know that before the introduction of plastic, most of the buttons in the United States were made from Tagua nuts?  In the 1920s, the exportation of this nut, also known as "vegetable ivory" brought nearly $5 million dollars into South American county of Ecuador.  This South American export is enjoying new popularity today both in the garment industry where it is used for buttons and fasteners, and in the art world. 

Why is this plain looking little brown nut so important today?  Well, it is a great example of something small having a big impact.  There are three primary reasons the world has taken notice of the Tagua nut: ecology, economy and art.  From an ecology point of view, the Tagua nut is very much like animal ivory in terms of its texture and appearance.  As people became more aware that using animal ivory could result in extinction of entire species of animals, Tagua nut became a suitable replacement.  You almost cannot tell the difference between Tagua nut and mammal ivory. 

Economically speaking, the Tagua nut, which grows in the rain forest, is a sustainable natural resource.  This means that the valuable rain forest is not harmed in the cultivation and harvesting of this material.  It allows the people who inhabit the rain forest to engage in profitable trade without destroying their lands.  As you know, everyone on the planet benefits from keeping the rain forest intact since it is so important to the atmosphere of the earth! 

Artistically, because it is so much like ivory both in appearance and in texture, Tagua nut has become quite popular as a raw material.  Art forms like scrimshaw, traditionally reserved for mammal ivory are now being practiced using the Tagua nut.  Figurines and animals are among the art objects you can find created from Tagua nut.  Tagua nut is also used to make intricate designs that are used to inlay boxes, for jewelry for example.  

Before it is processed, the Tagua nut does not look like anything special.  The Tagua nut is a small nut that measures about one to two inches with a brownish exterior.  Taguas grow on palm trees in several regions of South America.  Probably the best-known producer of Taguas is Ecuador.  It is inside the Tagua nut that the real beauty is found!  The interior material, which is used to manufacture practical objects and art, ranges in color from white to amber.  The composition of the Tagua nut is so similar to mammal ivory that it is difficult to tell them apart. 

If you were in the market for scrimshaw or other items historically made from mammal ivory, just be sure to have the piece checked out by an expert.  There are cases where a dishonest merchant has been known to sell items made from Tagua nut as mammal ivory.  These items made from Tagua nut instead of mammal ivory are lovely to be sure, but are probably not antiques.  Most of the mammal ivory you would find for sale these days would have to be antique or obtained from an illegal source.  It is the rare nature of animal ivory that fetches the sky high prices.  The other reason ivory has such a great value is its sheer beauty, and that is something the Tagua nut is able to match. 

Therefore, the little brown Tagua nut has many advantages over mammal ivory, becoming popular enough to stand on its own.  Tagua nuts can be grown and harvested economically, and so art and other items made from Tagua nut are reasonably priced, meaning more people can enjoy their beauty and durability.  Tagua nuts are a resource that seems to benefit just about everyone!

Below is a sample inro. This inro has three section that open to reveal compartments inside. A silk cord passes through the inro, then the ojime bead, and finally ends at the netsuke. The ojime bead is slid down against the top of the inro to keep it closed.


Ivory, Bone, or ??? Snuff Bottles
Porcelain Jade and Gemstones
Mammoth Ivory Netsuke
Bone & Wood Inro
Ojime Beads
Hardwood Netsuke
Tagua Nut Netsuke

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