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How to Identify Real Ivory Whale Teeth

| Updated September 26, 2017

Things You'll Need

  • Educational materials

  • Emery board

  • Hot needle

Real ivory whale teeth are very collectible. They are especially collectible when they are inscribed with designs. This art form is called scrimshaw. Since real ivory whale teeth and scrimshaws can be extremely valuable, there are many fakes on the market. Fakes can range from cheap plastic productions, to bone and even very well made mixtures of materials.

Learn the defining characteristics found in sperm whale ivory teeth. Sperm whale teeth can be quite large with the average height being around 20 cm or almost 8 inches. A real tooth is cone shaped and has a small amount of enamel at the ends. The rest of the tooth is covered by cementum which is a bone-like tissue that forms the outer surface of the tooth. When looking at the cross sections of the tooth that are visible at the bottom, you can see a thicker outer cementum ring, followed by a clearly visible transition ring and oval or round rings of dentine. Dentine is the mineralized dental tissue that makes up the majority of the mass of a tooth.

Research the proper identification marks found on killer whale ivory teeth. Killer whale teeth are also cone shaped, have enamel at the ends, are covered by cementum and have round or oval cross sections of dentine. These teeth also display a slight rose pattern in the cross section of dentine. Killer whale teeth also have two slight external indentations and they are smaller than sperm whale teeth.

Know the common signs of fake materials often presented as ivory. Start by looking at the horizontal stripes commonly found on a piece of ivory. Hold the ivory up to a light and rotate it. If the lines disappear or become less pronounced, it is real ivory. The lines on fake ivory are visible at any angle. Forgeries from as far back as the early 1900s can be a clear white color. When a piece looks evenly white and does not show any color variations that are natural on whale teeth, it is probably a fake. Since the 1970s large numbers of ivory fakes have been produced by plastic casts made from original ivory pieces. They have also been colored and artificially worn down.

Test the ivory whale teeth to see if they are fake. One of most common tests people read about is the hot needle test. This involves heating up a small needle until it is red hot. The needle is than placed into an inconspicuous spot, and if it melts or sinks into the material than it is fake ivory or bone. If there is no mark and it did not melt it is of animal origin. This test only works if the needle is red hot and instantly placed into the piece. Another test is using a nonmetal emery board. Use an emery board on a nonvisible portion of the whale’s tooth. Create a small pile of particles from the piece and if it has an acrid or sweet smell it is fake. If it smells like burned bone or burned natural materials, it is real ivory.


  • The more you handle fake ivory pieces and real ivory whale teeth the easier it becomes to distinguish between the two.