Are my piano keytops real ivory?

Posted by Sarah Czarnecki on

When you sit down at your antique piano, you may ask yourself, “Are these ivories real ivory? And if they are, what should I do with them? Can I sell real ivory? Am I even allowed to own it?” Here’s how to determine the real thing and what you can do with them.

ivory keytops

These are real ivory original keytops from an antique piano. 

Real ivory was immensely popular because it’s naturally beautiful. Ivory has a delicate grain, reduces slipping, and lasts for centuries. It’s usually made from elephant tusks, which are made of keratin. Yep, that’s the same stuff as hair and fingernails! This organic material is tough, beautiful, and as unique as a fingerprint. 

But it is now illegal to buy or sell any ivory. Period. We do not sell ivory keytops nor do we buy them. 

Steinway stopped using real ivory in 1956. Actually, all American piano manufacturers had stopped by this time, but some Asian and European brands continued using ivory until the 1980s. Ivory trade was finally banned in 1989, thanks to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. Today, ivory keytops are outlawed around the world.

But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use and enjoy the ivory keytops you already have. It’s perfectly fine to keep your ivory keytops, care for them, and even pass your antique piano down to your heirs. 

So how do I know if my keys are ivory?

Identifying real ivory can be tricky sometimes, but there are a few quick and easy ways to determine if your keytops are real ivory 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 you’ll probably want to replace it. 

closeup of real ivory keytops

Notice the fine grain, seams between sections, and color variations between these keys.

My keytops are real ivory! Are they valuable?

Nope. For one thing, they’re illegal to buy or sell. You can’t list them on the internet, you can’t give them away, transport them over state lines, or ship them outside the country. You may not sell the entire piano if it has real ivory keytops, either. 

This is the end of the line for your ivory keytops.

Remember that the entire key isn’t made of solid ivory either - it’s just a thin veneer. Ivory cracks, chips, and peels (just like fingernails, which are made of the same material) and over the years it becomes brittle. Many pianos with real ivory lose their veneers and reveal the wooden piece below. Your keytops probably aren’t in good shape, and even if they were, there’s so little material that ivory artists couldn’t work with it. Sorry, no value there.  

Still, you shouldn't rip them off and throw them in the trash. If your ivory came off or you want it removed, you can donate them to your piano technician who will dispose of them appropriately or use them to refurbish antiques. 

chipped missing damaged real ivory keytops

Chances are your keytops are chipped, discolored, or altogether missing like these. Notice the exposed wood where the ivory part is missing.

Well then, what are the black keys made of?

Ebony and ivory, remember? All black keys were originally made of a dense tropical hardwood called ebony. It polishes beautifully, repels moisture and oils, and stands the test of time. Due to the availability and over-harvesting of ebony trees, most modern black piano keys are made of plastic. We do provide natural ebony keys, too.

Can I replace the real ivory keytops that are missing?

Yes, but probably not with real ivory. Don’t worry, modern replacements are fantastic and can even be color matched. 

Some professional piano technicians do have a collection of old ivory salvaged from pianos and you may ask if they’d be willing to replace your real ivory. However, we discourage the continuation of ivory use, even using salvage to refurbish antiques. There are excellent replacements that are humane, inexpensive, and almost indistinguishable from the real thing. 

Love the look of real ivory, but sick of the seam? We also carry seamless imitation keytops!

simulated ivory keytop head

If you have an ivory keytop that has fallen off, you or your technician may replace it. We recommend using adhesive cement wafers that are safe for ivory.  

I don't want my ivory anymore. What can I do with it?

The most respectful thing you can do with unwanted ivory is to donate it. Don't throw it in the garbage. Instead, contact your local piano technician for careful removal and replacement. Most experienced piano technicians have amassed a collection of reclaimed ivory that they use to repair antiques. By donating your unwanted keytops, you can help save elephants and make sure that their precious ivory doesn't go to waste!

Why are ivory laws so strict? 

You may be wondering why you can’t just sell the ivory you have. It’s yours, right? Couldn’t you sell it as an antique? 

Elephant poaching is no laughing matter. The total ivory ban works hard to drive down demand and help save the elephants. Every little bit helps put poachers out of business and improve the elephant population, so don’t be tempted to make an exception for your personal piano. It’s just not worth it.

Imitation ivory happens to be longer lasting, inexpensive, doesn’t yellow the way real ivory does, and is available in one piece with no seam. Plastic keytops are smooth and beautiful, but if you prefer a little grip to your keytops, choose ivorite. It’s just as beautiful - if not more beautiful - than the real thing and still provides that signature texture. 

Learn more about the ivory trade and what you can do to help save elephants here:

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