Dartmoor Ivory – now before anyone wonders, there are not or have there ever been any herds of wild elephants roaming Dartmoor but back in 1925 somebody was making a living from ornaments and jewellery from ‘Dartmoor Ivory’. I recently came across the following article which appeared in the news on the 16th of January 1925;
“High up in the wilds of Dartmoor a craftsman has discovered a new, curious, and interesting handicraft. This is the making of beautiful little tablets of a substance resembling old ivory or a creamy kind of agate adorned with peculiar brown markings.
On looking at a pony’s tooth it is difficult to realise that anything attractive could be made from it, yet the examples I have seen are certainly uncommonly charming in effect.
One man only as far as I am able to ascertain, makes these curious things. The method has been handed down to him through generations of Moor men, for he comes from stalwart old Dartmoor stock and is himself a fine son of the moors.
In his rambles among the wilder tors he not infrequently finds the skeleton of a little moor pony which has probably been unable to withstand rough weather and scant living. From the skull he removes the ‘grinder,’ front teeth are too thin for his purpose. These ‘grinders’ being ‘green’ must be stored in a dry place until properly seasoned. A ‘green’ tooth would, as he terms it, ‘rain’ – otherwise split up if worked on.
When the teeth are seasoned they are imbedded in a wooden mould filled with plaster of paris, leaving about an inch of the crown free, and are so placed as to have all the crowns at the same height to work upon. Now comes the process of grinding to a flat surface. This is performed in the first instance with a piece of coarse carborundum. When the surface is ground flat and smooth he takes up a much finer piece of the same material, and grinds away any roughness which the coarser carborundum left behind. The third stage of rubbing is accomplished with a piece of snake-stone (variolites), which finally removes dents or unevenness. Last of all, to attain a high polish he uses a piece of felt dipped in putty powder.
The upper surface, now complete, the teeth are taken from their bed and any adhering plaster chipped off. Next comes the process of cutting the tooth with a back saw. A thin slice, ¼-inch thick, is cut off and kept, the remainder being thrown away. Only one piece can be cut from a tooth though a pony’s grinder measures 2 inches or even 3 inches in length.
Now the little slab is ready for mounting in the desired pattern, or can be drilled and threaded for bizarre necklaces, pendants, or bracelets. Pieces mounted singly are delightful as charms or brooches. There are many possibilities.
A curious thing is that the same pattern, one might almost call it ‘graining’ occurs in opposite teeth, thus pairs can be easily matched. To lovers or ornaments which are novel and also charming, the little creamy brown tablets strike an intriguing note.“
As bizarre as this may seem there are still people making jewellery from horses teeth today as a quick Google search revealed. One person it offering to make custom pendants, ear-rings etc from your favourite horse’s teeth, they don’t specify whether it needs to be dead or alive before donating the tooth. If you have $874 to spare you could even buy a ‘three million year old’ fossilised horse tooth pendant. Likewise for $950 somebody is selling a pair of antique Edwardian cuff-links made from horse’s teeth on Ebay. In fact it becomes clear that the fashion for such items is still very much in vogue as in 1925. A fully developed horse at around five years of age will have 24 ‘grinders’ which means you would have to find a lot of dead ponies in order to make a good living and this would involve a great deal of walking as well. But if you would like to have a go at making horse teeth jewellery without the hassle of traipsing around Dartmoor in search of dead ponies there are numerous sites on the internet selling ‘horse ivory’. Alternatively it may be worth contacting your local ‘knackerman’ but be sure to buy a good pair of pliers beforehand.