The tagua nut is a dried seedpod from an Amazonian palm tree that grows in the tropical rainforests of South America. The nut from the Tagua plant is known as “vegetable ivory” for its creamy white appearance, virtually identical to the ivory taken from elephant tusks. The tagua “ivory nut” is used in jewellery, beads, buttons and many handicrafts produced throughout Ecuador, employing approximately 50,000 people. Resembling the finest ivory in texture and color, it is just slightly softer.
At the Otavalo market you can find all types of decorative items made with this material: small decorative animals, bracelets, earrings, necklaces, rings, buttons, back-scratchers, pendants, Christmas ornaments and beads. Jewellery made from Tagua is popular with women throughout the world. And modern designers are incorporating tagua beads into the production of natural jewellery and hip clothing.
In Ecuador the Tagua palm grows in Carchi, Esmeraldas, Manabi, Guayas and El Oro provinces. It’s a thorny tree averaging five to six meters in height, and it takes 15 years for the tagua palm tree to begin bearing fruit. After that, the plant provides three nut harvests annually. Tagua nuts grow in large studded armoured pods, each pod the size of a grapefruit or melon, and containing four or more large seeds. The pods fall to the ground when they are ripe, and are gathered and dried from four to eight weeks, after which the seeds are removed.
The tagua nuts, or seeds, vary in size from that of a small olive to as large as an orange, but the average size is about that of a walnut, two inches (or 5 cm) long. The small size of the nut limits the size of the articles that can be crafted from them. Therefore many artisans combine several tagua nuts to make a larger piece.
The Tagua nuts have a natural brown skin. To obtain a marbled look, the skin is partially peeled and then polished. For the creamy white ivory color, the skins are removed completely before polishing. Other colors are obtained by using natural dyes extracted from flowers, fruits, roots, leaves, and seeds. Using saws, Tagua nuts are sliced and cut into various shapes, and then have holes drilled into them depending on the end purpose and design.
Tagua in History
From the late nineteenth century up until the end of World War II, a tagua nut industry flourished on three continents. Known as corozzo or corozo in Europe, the tagua nut was used to make fine buttons for the clothing industry, some even being used on United States Army uniforms. Many of the finest “ivory” items of the Victorian era, such as jewellery, dice, dominoes, chess pieces and cane handles were made from carved tagua. Umbrella handles, piano keys, pipes, and items with the fine art of scrimshaw were also produced during this time period.
The invention of synthetic plastics ended the widespread popularity of tagua. High quality items were more frequently made from animal ivory, taken from elephants, walruses and whales. Today vegetable ivory is staging a comeback because many ivory bearing animals have been hunted to near extinction and are now on the endangered species list.
Today many people are enlightened about the need to protect the enviroment and ensure the survival of endangered species. Like the ivory from elephants, tagua is totally natural. But no animals are destroyed in harvesting this renewable resource. Tagua products provide income for those dwelling within the Amazon rainforest, and are harvested without any harm to the tree. In fact, one tagua palm tree produces the same amount of “ivory” per year as that obtained form the destruction of a female elephant. And the tagua palm tree will continue to produce “vegetable ivory” for year after year as the nuts that fall to the ground are harvested and processed.