Chinese Scrimshaw

Since we have been in the Far East for a number of the past few chapters, I thought we might look at something that is more folk art from there. #Scrimshaw is the art of carving or engraving on bone or ivory.

It was originally practiced by sailors who carved whale bone to make crude tools. In their leisure time they carved pieces as artworks and less utile objects. Whale bone is ideal for carving as it is easy to work and was plentiful in years past. Sailors used rough needles which would likely have been used to mend sails. Often the etched images would be rubbed with candle black/soot/tobacco juice or ink to bring the etching into view. Today, scrimshanders (those who work with bone and ivory) use fine tools derived from dental instruments to work their etchings/carvings and even ink their pieces in various colours.

We often think about ivory when talking about scrimshaw. Trade in ivory is – on the most part – illegal, today. Pieces which might come up for sale need to be antique. Often, people will donate their pieces to a museum to avoid any hassle.

Scrimshaw is often found as part of jewellery whether bracelet, necklace, or brooch.

My collection has two small water buckets which are decorated with scrimshaw.

As far as I can tell, the scrimshaw is bone not ivory and the pieces are definitely old. They stand 5 1/4″ (135mm) and are 2 1/2″ (64mm) in diameter. Each rectangular piece of scrimshaw is roughly 1″ (25mm) by 1 1/4″ (33mm). Alas, one rectangular piece was missing when I acquired the small buckets. Even so, nice pieces.

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