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Robert Eisenstadt's
Antique Gambling Chips &  Gambling Memorabilia Web Site


I am amused the way flea market and antique dealers often misrepresent (intentionally or not) the material of objects. If a thing is white plastic or bone, it is often called "ivory."  (If it is colored plastic [or just about anything], it is often called "bakelite."  Click here  for someone's page about testing for bakelite.  Click here for my catalin/bakelite page.)   I created this page as an aid to those interested in identifying bone, ivory and celluloid.  ... ....... Click here for another good source on this subject.


BONE CHIPS -- The key  distinguishing features of bone chips are the short, usually dark (from soiling), porous cracks in the surface.  They run in the same direction.  Many bone chips do not have the lines as pronounced as in the samples above.  Often they are hard to see, but look close, and you should find them.  Most (but not all) bone chips are not polished, and are as thin as a dime or quarter.  Compared to ivory, they are light and weak.  The two concentric bone chips at the lower right are engraved, but most bone chips are not scrimshawed (engraved) -- usually they are stained over the entire surface and then milled down to create the design.  Quite often the chips are stained one solid color and left that way -- yellow, red, green, etc., or left natural (white).  Usually the bone chips are sold in sets of four colors (usually red, yellow, green and natural), each color coming in its own small wooden box, and each color coming in three shapes -- typically a circle, a long rectangle and a short rectangle (all three shapes are shown in the above picture).



Many ivory chips do not show the ivory grain and nerve spot as conspicuously as this one.
This chip is part of my wonderful set of ivories originally made for, and owned by, the fabulously wealthy industrialist and philanthropist P.A.B. Widener (1834-1915).
He kept it on his 225-foot yacht "Josephine," named after his wife.  Full story and pictures here.

IVORY CHIPS -- Ivory has curved grain that intersects (cross-hatching).  The samples above show this, but are more pronounced than most ivory grain, which is often hard to see.  The best spot to find the grain is to look at the rim/end area of the chips.  Ivory is usually polished.  It is heavier and stronger than bone.  Most ivory chips are about as thick as a poker chip -- about two quarters thickness.  Ivory chips are almost always scrimshawed (engraved) with a design.  (However, often concentric design ivories are not scrimshawed, just stained near the rim.)  (Also, remember that "ivory" is a color as well as a material.  I have an old wooden chip box that has a label on it: "100 Checks 1-1/4 inch .... No.1.... IVOROYD."   The chips are clay composition.  "Ivoroyd" referred to the color or durability of the chips.  I have often seen boxes of ordinary plastic dice that had "ivory" rubber-stamped on the box.  That simply referred to the color of the dice.) (SEE IVORY FAKE SECTION AT BOTTOM OF THIS PAGE.)



FRENCH IVORY/CELLULOID/PLASTIC CHIPS --  These chips are usually not made to fool people, just to make inexpensive pleasing objects.  Unlike the ivory chips, the grain here is manufactured through the chips or dice as wavy PARALLEL lines.  That is the key -- the lines do not intersect or cross-hatch.  Due to the way they are manufactured, the dice have "grain" lines on four sides, but none or not much on the other two sides (ends).  These items are plastic and burn easily and accept a hot pin readily.  (French Ivory is basically celluloid plastic with some ground powdered ivory mixed in.)


Recently some "ivory poker chips"  have appeared that were recently scrimshawed -- made to look like antique ivory chips.  One fake is shown above -- the top chip is easy to identify by the jerky scrimshaw lines which were made by a laser.  A real old ivory chip is below it.  I thank Richard Hanover for this picture and the information.  Rich says, "Each stroke that is carved by hand starts with a blunt entry cut. The end of the curve is feathered to a point as the steel leaves the ivory. Also, a hand carved lline is continuous. The repro looks etched (scratched) or lasered. ... ....The sad part is the the seller has plenty of buyers all thinking that they are getting something they are not. " Others have said: "It sure doesn't look engraved by hand. Looks more like it was blasted by a laser or even sandblasted. The cuts aren't smooth and continuous like I'd expect from hand engraving. ... ... .... It is nice to see a close up of the line work. I am still not covinced it is elephant tusk ivoy (as most all ivory chips from the 1800's were elephant). With the look of straight bone pore lines in the new carving chip, it looks like it might be walrus tusk to me."

There are other factors too in the difference between old antiue scrimshawed ivory and the modern fakes: "Tusks used to make antique ivory chips were crosscut. All of the modern repros being produced were cut lengthwise or "ripped" in order to make as many blanks as possible." And some have suggested  that the rippled effect in the fakes, which are often recently scrimshawed on old blank ivory, it that the old blank ivory is 10 times harder than when originally taken form the elephant, so when scrimshawed today causes the brittle point of contact as seen in the picture above.

Rich also made these comments regarding current machined ivory chips as opposed to the old-fashioned carved ones: "A carved line will begin blunt, where the knife enters the ivory, but end in a fine point, where the knife leaves the ivory.  Also, the design, being carved by hand, will not be perfect. "A machined "scrimshaw" will fail on both points listed above. A machine will begin and end a line with the same thickness. Also the symmetry will be perfect."

These are reproductions or fantasy (modern) ivory poker chips.  Presented that way on the seller's web site.

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