For about three decades now, the use of ivory for decorative figurines and jewelry has been frowned upon by society for a good reason: elephants and rhinos have been dying out. Thankfully, more and more people are becoming aware of the high number of unnecessary, violent animal deaths it takes to create things that are more of a luxury than a need. The world is in need of an alternative to ivory and this is where the luscious tagua of Ecuador comes into play.
What is a Tagua Nut?
The tagua is endemic to certain parts of South America like Ecuador, Panama, and Peru. Scientifically known as Phytelephas, the tagua tree is also known as ivory-nut palms. The kernels of the palms are gathered when the fruit ripens and drops from the tree. After the kernels’ pericarps are removed, the nuts are dried until they can be carved into usable pieces of odd shapes and sizes depending on their purpose.
Although very hard, like ivory, the tagua nut is easy to cut, carve and dye. The locals took advantage of this raw material, put their creativity and innovation to work, and are creating stunning pieces of jewelry.
Recently, aside from jewelry, tagua nuts have been used by locals to produce bagpipes, buttons, piano keys, guitar picks and many other items formerly made from ivory and/or plastic. It is also been used by the natives for food consumption.
How are Tagua Nuts Converted into Jewelry?
After drying the nuts, the artisans pick out the best and most usable sizes by hand. They slowly shave the nuts individually by hand or with a sander to turn the nut into their desired shape. They are pre-soaked before being put into heated pots filled with organic vegetable coloring. When the color has seeped through the nuts enough, the pot is drained and the nuts are cooled in a flat surface. Most often, an organic dye is used.
The nuts are then gathered into a container which tumbles them either mechanically or manually, working like your spin dryer at home. The nuts are naturally polished by the tumbling when they rub against each other. The artisans handpick their chosen shapes and sizes for a second time, drilling holes in them before stringing them together in different patterns to form necklaces or bracelets.
How does the Tagua Industry Contribute to the Economy of Ecuador?
Ecuador, in particular, has benefited a great deal from tagua jewelry making industry. It currently employs and provides decent salaries for over fifty thousand local people. Thanks in part to the growing popularity of eco-friendly, fair trade products, tagua jewelry is particularly responsible for the increase in the rate of export from Ecuador.
How You Can Help
Aside from boycotting the use and the selling of real ivory, you can help sustain the tagua industry by supporting budding social entrepreneurs in Ecuador. Look for jewelry makers that empower the locals, especially the women who are the creative backbones of the industry. Make sure that you are buying from stores that support fair trade so that the industry won’t fall into big corporations that will exploit the workers by minimizing their salaries.
Please let me know your comments – I love to hear from you! Do you have any tagua jewelry? What are your thoughts on it? Would you ever choose tagua over other types of beads?