New Ivory Rules Leave Bowmakers Conflicted

July 11, 2016, 9:47 AM · The revisions to U.S. rules on African elephant ivory that were announced in late spring will certainly make travel easier for most musicians, but bowmakers are still left wondering exactly how much they need to change their craft in order to ensure their clients hassle-free travel with their bows.

The ruling, which took effect July 6, allows musicians to buy and sell instruments with a small amount of ivory and to carry them on international flights. This "de minimus" exemption for small amounts of ivory applies to any instrument that meets the following criteria: the ivory must have been imported to the U.S. legally in the first place (which likely means it was acquired before Feb. 26, 1976); the total weight of the ivory component or components is less than 200 grams; and the bow must have been manufactured before the effective date of the final rule, on June 6, 2016. (You can find more details here)

"That's great for musicians in so many ways; it means they can travel," said Minnesota-based bowmaker Matthew Wehling, who has been making bows for 21 years. But it also means that any instrument made after the June 6th final ruling needs to have no elephant ivory in it. Practically speaking, that means that bowmakers likely will have to stop using still-legal mammoth ivory as well, and "that is unfortunate," Wehling said. Since mammoth ivory comes from a long-extinct species, its use does not endanger that species in the way that the elephant ivory trade endangers elephants.

Matthew Wehling
Bow maker Matthew Wehling. Photo by Stephanie Dehler Photography

"For many years they've been telling us not to worry about mammoth ivory because mandates don't have anything to do with extinct species," Wehling said. "However, the border patrol can't tell one from another. They have a difficult job, they have 20 different agencies giving them regulations; they can't be expected to know every detail."

Wehling advised musicians to keep their receipts when they purchase an instrument, and to have copies of them if they are traveling. For bows made after June 6, 2016, "we're back to the same old thing; you would want to be very cautious traveling with anything with mammoth (ivory), and you don't want to use (elephant) ivory at all."

Four states -- New York, New Jersey, California and Washington -- have stricter ivory laws than the federal law, and they define ivory very broadly, including both elephant and mammoth ivory. Within those states, there will likely be tension between the federal exemptions for minimal ivory in musical instruments and the stricter state laws. Wehling recommended that musicians in those states -- and other states that may be considering stricter ivory laws -- lobby their state legislators, who may not be aware of the need for an exemption for musical instruments made in the past with minimal amounts of legally traded ivory. "We need to have exclusions, like the federal exclusion," Wehling said. "Get on the phone with your state representative or senator. If you can get to them ahead of time, then you can have an ally at the capitol who can say, 'Let's look at this bill twice.'"

Wehling was disappointed that the exemptions announced last month did not explicitly allow for the manufacture of new bows with legal mammoth ivory.

"I don't know anyone who is thinking, 'Boy, I want to make something out of (elephant) ivory,' but it would be nice to be able to use mammoth," Wehling said. "But I am still afraid to use mammoth because I don't think it's a safe thing for people who are going to be traveling."

Why use mammoth?

"The main reason I want to use mammoth is I don't want to use elephant ivory," Wehling said. "Mammoth is the best alternative to elephant ivory, it's very similar."

"The alternatives are a product made from casein, which is a milk product; however it's a very brittle product," Wehling said. "After casein, there is a new product called tip armor, which is a manmade product which has silk embedded in it. The advantage of this material is that with a magnifying lens you can see the silk cloth, and hopefully you'd be able to convince a border guard that it was obviously a manmade material." The drawbacks are that it's a little difficult to work with, and it also is manmade, not organic. "It also is very difficult on your tools. When you're using files, it dulls them very quickly, and we use quite expensive files."

ivory bow parts
L-R: elephant ivory tip, mammoth ivory tip, synthetic "Tip Armor" tip, mammoth block for a violin frog, all legally acquired.

"People also use bone, but bone is very brittle," he said. "It's very discouraging to put a tip in there and have a part of it break off, or for a musician, for it to break off too easily."

"I want to provide a product to my customers that they can, without any worry at all, take to Europe if they want, and take back home," Wehling said. "Going forward, musicians are still going to have to be a little worried, unless they've purchased before July 6. Anything they have, they need to keep all their documentation and bring it with you. Don't think, 'I guess there's no problem any more.'"

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July 11, 2016 at 06:03 PM · I play the violin and I never knew that

July 11, 2016 at 10:04 PM · One potential solution is to use metal tips instead of ivory. The problem with silver is its high density, which could affect the weight distribution of the bow considerably. Aluminum (density 2.7 g/cc) is only a little more dense than ivory (1.7 g/cc), and a metal tip can be made thinner. Aluminum is subject to surface corrosion, so after fitting an aluminum tip, a coating such as titanium nitride would have to be applied before finally mounting it.

July 12, 2016 at 01:01 AM · Out of the hundreds of thousands of plastics on the market there must be something that will do the job here ?

July 12, 2016 at 01:16 AM · Brian, certainly that is true. I just got new tips put onto two CF bows (ca. $500 bows). It cost me $12 each to have them put on there. Most luthiers charge ten times that to fit new tips. The new tips are a white plastic that looks and feels like PVC. They're functional, and reasonably well fitted, so I'm happy, even though they look "too white".

The problem is to have something that looks elegant enough to put on an expensive bow, has the desired physical properties (workable yet strong), AND is easily and immediately distinguishable from ivory by a border agent.

Replacing existing ivory on a precious antique bow is a completely different matter.

July 15, 2016 at 03:59 PM · I would vote for plastic. Tint it any color that is reasonable. Gray would still be dignified and it would not look like ivory. Another thought, could a bow be certified "M" for mamouth? Can a person carry such a document for travel?

July 15, 2016 at 06:54 PM · W.E.Hill and Sons used metal, but one has to accept that theirs are not the absolute top of the pile.

The lightest and strongest cycles are made of titanium alloy. Maybe that would do too for bow tips?

July 18, 2016 at 05:47 AM · If you want to get read, this is how you should write.

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