Everything you need to know about ivory keytops
Does your antique piano still have ivory keys? The ivory trade is outlawed around the world, so you may wonder if it's legal to own real ivory and what to do with it.
These are real ivory original keytops from an antique piano.
Piano companies no longer use ivory.
Real ivory keytops are naturally beautiful. They are usually made from the tusks of elephants or similar animals and filed into perfect rectangles for keytops. The tusks themselves are made from keratin, the same material as hair and fingernails, so they are long-lasting and unique as a fingerprint. Ivory is also slightly textured and reduces slipping and sticking as you play.
However, piano manufacturers including Steinway stopped using ivory in 1956, and Asian and European brands ceased production of ivory keytops in the mid-1980s.
Buying and selling ivory is illegal.
The ivory trade was outlawed in 1989 thanks to The Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES). Real ivory may not be sold, bought, given away, transported over state lines, or shipped out of the country. This applies to all ivory items — sculptures, embellishments, keytops, and even entire pianos with ivory keys.
This total ban works hard to drive down demand for ivory and help save endangered elephants, allowing their population to return. Even black market demand has been slashed after the ban took place, and since then, elephant populations have more than doubled.
It is legal to own ivory.
Although you cannot buy, sell, or trade ivory anywhere in the world (including on the internet) you are permitted to keep the ivory that you already own.
If you already have ivory on your piano, enjoy it! It's fine to play ivory keys, clean them, maintain them, and even pass them on to your heirs. It's better to enjoy the piece than waste it.
Do not worry about the legality of owning ivory antiques and heirlooms; it is the trade in ivory that is illegal.
How to identify real ivory.
Here are a few simple ways to determine whether your ivory keytops are real or not.
- Real ivory turns yellow. The most obvious difference is color. Real ivory turns yellow over time; the darker the yellow, the older the keytop. If your piano keys were regularly cleaned for all these years and have been carefully polished, though, you may not notice this yellowing. There’s also some variation in color between keys or even within the same key.
- Real ivory has a seam. Old ivory keytops were always made with two parts: a larger rectangular tab in the front, and a narrower section in the back. These parts are called the head and the tail. Newer keytops are L-shaped, but the old ones were made in two segments and glued together.
- Real ivory has fine grain. Look closely at your keytops. Do you see a delicate grain pattern? They’re called Schreger lines, and they’re unique just like fingerprints. You can even use these lines to determine the species of animal your keys came from!
- Real ivory reacts to UV light. Use a UV or blacklight and you’ll see real ivory fluoresce either bright white or a glowing violet-blue. Plastic, wood, and ivorite do not react.
- Real ivory doesn’t burn. We don’t recommend this technique since it will damage the keytop, but you can use a red-hot needle to determine whether your key is ivory or not. Touch the tip of the needle to the keytop. If it melts or burns, it’s plastic… and will probably need to be replaced!
Notice the fine grain, seams between sections, and color variations between these keys.
Ivory keytops are not valuable.
Because the trade in ivory is completely outlawed around the world, the keytops are not valuable. But even if it was legal, remember that only a thin veneer on top of the key is made of ivory. The entire key isn't made of solid ivory. This thin veneer can chip, crack, and peel (remember, it's made of the same material as fingernails, so it's subject to the same kind of damage). This thin slice is such little material that even ivory artists probably wouldn't be able to work with it.
Chances are your keytops are chipped, discolored, or altogether missing like these. Notice the exposed wood and cement wafers where the ivory part is missing.
But you can replace missing keytops with real ivory.
I am able to reattach ivory keytops that have fallen off. Save broken pieces that have fallen off or any salvaged ivory.
If you prefer modern cruelty-free replacements, I offer imitation ivory keytop heads, tails, and even seamless keytops. These replacements can be shaped, color matched, and filed to look just like the real thing. It also has fine grain, providing that signature ivory texture and grip.
Donate unwanted ivory to your piano technician.
The most respectful thing you can do with unwanted ivory is to donate it. Don't throw it in the garbage. Instead, contact me for careful removal and replacement. I can use reclaimed ivory to repair and refurbish antiques. By donating your unwanted keytops, you can help save elephants and make sure that their precious ivory doesn't go to waste!