The White Elephant

Posted on the 3rd April 2012

We get all sorts of goodies brought into Holts for repair – goodies of the jewellery sort, that is. New, old, we see the lot but it’s the old pieces that are often the most interesting. Taking part in the restoration of beautiful jewels is always a treat – especially when those jewels come with a bit of history. Often we only contribute in a minor way, like finding a tiny replacement half pearl or cutting a stone to replace one that’s missing. Even so, it’s a pretty interesting part of day-to-day life at Holts. Whenever someone from the Trade comes in with something wrapped in several layers of tissue and bubble wrap, you know you’re about to see something special. Last week we had just such a parcel. Inside was a carved elephant – about the size of a coconut – with the most beautifully bejewelled gold saddle and harness. Rubies, pearls and sapphires were set into exquisitely engraved bright Indian gold, demonstrating a level of craftsmanship that is rarely seen in contemporary work. Although rather awestruck by the beauty of the piece and already working out how I could summon the money to buy it, I couldn’t help but notice that the main body of the elephant was made from ivory. Cue moral dilemma. Now, I’m the first to express my horror at the thought of hunting elephants for their ivory in modern time. But what about ivory collected some 150 years ago? Does it make a difference? On the one hand, what’s done is done. Locking a piece of carved ivory up in a cupboard is not going to bring back the elephant that lost its life for the sake of art. On the other hand, I’m not sure where one can draw the line between owning and enjoying something for its aesthetic allure and condoning the process from which it was derived. The same moral dilemma occurs with coral and tortoiseshell pieces – the aesthete in me wants to wear, buy and enjoy. My conscience says no. So there it is – moral dilemma of the month. Thoughts on a postcard, please!