Perhaps you are in the market for a piano; something classic, elegant, with style and history? Every piano has a story behind it, especially older pieces that are well traveled. You may have heard rumors about “ivory key” pianos still in circulation, and being of discerning taste, gained some curiosity about such unique antiquities.
We all enjoy a bit of particularity or exclusivity in our lives and in certain aspects of our artistry. Music and the instruments we choose to channel our creativity into are certainly not exempt from that. Ivory keys themselves have a fantastic texture and porosity, making them ideal for serious players.
While it is possible to obtain increasingly rare “pre-ban” pianos with ivory keys, there are some facts you should be aware of before settling on one.
What Exactly Is An Ivory Key?
Pianos manufactured prior to the 1989 ivory ban may indeed have true ivory veneer left on the keys, provided they were never replaced and are the original keys. It is important to note that there can often be a misconception on what exactly an ivory piano key is, or more specifically, what you should look for in determining if the keys truly contain ivory. The keys are actually veneer coated wood. The ivory itself is simply a thin cover, cut to fit in segments atop the key surfaces and faces. If you look closely, you can actually see the seams and grain, similar to wood grain. The veneer is also a bit rough to the touch and does not warp from heat tests with a small pin or needle.
Many American piano manufacturers discontinued using ivory in the early 1970s, however, some international manufacturers in parts of Europe and Asia continued using ivory throughout the 1980s, until ivory trade was finally banned in an effort led by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) in 1989. For some insight into this, you can check out livingpianos.com.
Another important factor when considering buying an antique ivory piano is ensuring you can obtain the appropriate paperwork and permits for transferal of ownership as well as moving the item across state lines or borders. CITES permit information is required in order to verify the piece is lawful and registered, as well as documenting the transferal of ownership. If the proper legal procedures are not observed, the piece may be confiscated! These “legal hoops” that you need to jump through are there to prevent illegal smuggling of ivory-based items and keep them from standard circulation. While ivory is banned, illegal poaching and black market trading are still a major issue internationally.
In an effort to police these issues and help prevent poaching and ivory harvesting/trading, CITES enforces strict guidelines that must be adhered to in order to maintain or possess these items from the pre-ban era. These guidelines can sometimes be a real pain to deal with! If you are interested in learning more about the CITES organization, their conservation efforts, and information on CITES permits, you can head over to cites.org.
Repairing Ivory Keys
When working with ivory pianos, the task can be a bit daunting for the inexperienced. Not many venues offer services for antique ivory piano sets, and repairing broken keys can be almost impossible, not to mention quite expensive! Since July 6th, 2016, the sale of African Elephant ivory was almost completely banned from commercial trade, therefore finding replacement ivory within your state or area can be extremely difficult. Because of the nature of ivory, conventional repair methods are not recommended, as epoxy or standard glue does not adhere to the material well, if at all. Even cleaning ivory key sets can be frustrating, as attempting to use simple soap and water can have permanently damaging results and cause the veneer to curl and separate from the keys.
There are alternatives to true ivory, which are much cheaper and still achieve that same antique ivory feel, through simulated ivory key sets. Simulated ivory pieces or replacements are much easier to maintain and repair, and color matching is also a simple task, as opposed the difficult and expensive task of obtaining and matching true ivory.
There are also some ethical points to consider when shopping for an ivory piano. Before the conservation of elephants, the only source of ivory, the population of African elephants was nearly decimated by the impact that hunting and poaching had on these creatures. Harvesting them for their tusks nearly drove elephants to extinction, hence the reason why ivory trade is now essentially banned throughout the world. If you’d like to learn more about elephant conservation, impacts of poaching, or to find out how you can help, visit elephantconservation.org.
If you are searching for the perfect key texture, but have any misgivings on contributing to that era of history or owning an instrument manufactured with animal byproducts, there are several alternatives and varieties of simulated ivory key sets that can often times be superior to the genuine thing! The fine folks over at Howard Piano Industries have some intuitive information and great products to offer if you want the quality feel of ivory without the headache of upkeep, maintenance, or paperwork.
Now armed with this valuable information, you should feel confidant knowing that you can make an informed purchase decision regarding antique ivory pianos. We here at Turner’s carry a beautiful lineup of pre-owned pianos with some occasionally featuring ivory keys. We can help with any questions or concerns you may have. We specialize in making certain that our customers walk away happy and satisfied with their purchases.