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posted: 7/14/2013 5:00 AM

A pearl of wisdom about grandmother's beads

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  • These beads look a bit like pearls, but are they?

    These beads look a bit like pearls, but are they?

By Helaine Fendelman and Joe Rosson

Q. I am hoping you can tell me how much my grandmother's pearls are worth. She said they were made from walrus ivory that my grandfather purchased sometime in the late 1920s or 1930s when he was working in Alaska. I would appreciate any help.

A. These beads are not "pearls" by any stretch of the definition.

A pearl is a hard object made from calcium carbonate and conch Olin produced within the soft tissue of a living mollusk -- particularly oysters, mussels and clams. It is reported that any shelled mollusk can produce a pearl when a tiny (microscopic) object such as a grain of sand is trapped within the animal's mantle fold.

This process can occur naturally or with the aid of man, as in cultured pearls.

But the objects in today's question are not pearls.

Instead, these beads come from either the tusks or the teeth of a walrus, which is an aquatic Arctic mammal with two large tusks. These tusks have been carved into everything from cribbage boards to pie crimpers, figures, paperweights, cane tops and various types of jewelry.

Walrus ivory is often decorated with scrimshaw, which is an art form commonly practiced by sailors (and Inuit) who, besides walrus ivory, also engrave or carve bone, and whale ivory. To make the engraving stand out, pigment (usually black) is rubbed into the shallow lines.

To be clear, "ivory" refers to the teeth and tusk of animals, and includes the tusks of elephants (the word "ivory" is derived from the ancient Egyptian word for "elephant"), pigs (wild boars), hippopotamuses, sperm whales and narwhals (a type of whale with a single, long spiraling tusk). Items made from animal bones are not ivory, and in addition, there is a type of vegetable "ivory" made from the nut of the tagua palm.

There is no question in our minds this string of beads was made in Alaska, possibly by a member of the native population and sold to tourists. We also have no doubt these were made in the 1930s and were probably a homecoming, birthday, Christmas or anniversary present from your grandfather to your grandmother.

Some Inuit-made walrus items can be valuable, especially those that are elaborately scrimshawed or carved and from as early as the 17th century. Pre-World War II examples are also collectible, but the work has to be above average for collectors to get excited by these 20th-century examples.

A well-decorated cribbage board complete with game pegs can run $2,000 to $10,000 at auction, but a late or mediocre example might only bring $400 to $600 at auction. Unusual items, such as a 17th-century gaming ball, might sell for as much as $25,000. But realistically, most walrus-ivory items retail below $250.

Not long ago, a walrus-ivory necklace from the turn of the 20th century brought more than $6,000 at auction. It contained a string of amulets and buttons in the shape of such things as turtles, polar bears, fish, whales and seals.

This necklace is a wonderful family heirloom from the '30s, but its value is rather modest, $65 to $85.

• Contact Helaine Fendelman and Joe Rosson at Treasures in Your Attic, P.O. Box 18350, Knoxville, TN 37928.

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