Chinese Concentric Puzzle Balls
ARE THEY ALWAYS MADE OF IVORY?
A: They were usually made of ivory but can also be found in synthetic ivory, resin, wood, jade, and other materials. They often come with a tall and elaborate stand.
WHAT IS SYNTHETIC IVORY?
"Synthetic Ivory", sometimes called "Mandarin Ivory" or "Hong Kong Ivory", is usually made of a finely ground powdered ox bone mixed with resin. Articles are cast in their basic shape then finished by hand carving and decorating. They have exactly the same look and feel as the "real thing"; but are much cheaper and, most importantly, are not the cause of the death of any elephant.
WHAT IS THE BIGGEST PUZZLE BALL?
The largest ivory ones can be over 6 inches in diameter and have over 20 balls inside each other.
IS IT OK TO PLAY WITH THEM?
They are very fragile and it is important that they are not damaged. There is a tempting puzzle of trying to line up all the holes; but If you want to try use something soft. Smaller balls can be manipulated with a wooden toothpick. For larger ones be especially careful and use something like a quill.
It is advisable not to allow children to play with good examples. Young children have not usually developed the required physical coordination, delicacy and patience. It takes very little force to damage the inner shells and dropping them is usually fatal.
HOW ARE PUZZLE BALLS MADE?
The sphere is turned on a lathe then conical holes are drilled towards the center. The maker has a set of "L" shaped tools: the one with the longest upright has the shortest cutter, and the one with the shortest upright has the longest cutter.
Starting with the longest tool he lowers it to the narrow bottom of each hole in turn and rotates it to cut the innermost ball free. Then he gets the second tool which does not reach so far down the hole but can cut a wider arc and separates the second ball. He continues working from the innermost to outermost shell. For obvious reasons, usually only the outermost balls are elaborately carved.
IS IT OK TO BUY PUZZLE BALLS?
Always remember that a live Elephant is far nicer than the finest puzzle ball. Always refuse to buy ivory carvings unless you KNOW they are genuinely ANTIQUE or made of synthetic ivory. It is illegal to buy or sell modern ivory without CITES certification. Remember that elephants will no longer be killed for their tusks when people refuse to buy modern ivory.
CONSERVATION OF ENDANGERED SPECIES
As stressed elsewhere on this site, we strongly support the conservation of endangered wildlife and we are particularly disgusted at the continued destruction of Elephants and other endangered species. All the items we are showing here certainly date from before World War Two and most are mid to late 19th Century. Not a single Elephant would be saved by destroying these historic beautifully carved antique items which actually gave their name "Chinese Puzzle" to the whole field of mechanical puzzles.
We urge those who call for a ban or destruction of all antique ivory to reconsider. The destruction of the thousands of antique items made of, or including, ivory would not save the life of a single elephant and in cultural terms would be very similar to the Taliban's destruction of the Buddhas of Bamyan and ISIS destruction at Palmyra - Just wanton vandalism.
However we do urge everyone to make absolutely certain that they do not buy any modern item made of ivory unless it is certified mammoth or synthetic ivory. With the one exception of some of the concentric puzzle balls, we are not aware of any ivory puzzles being manufactured in latter half of the 20th Century. Ivory puzzles generally went out of fashion by the late 19th Century when so many interesting and cheaper puzzles started being produced in other materials.
It is a tragedy that ignorant tourists will still buy modern ivory including the concentric Puzzle Balls. Usually impressed by the mystery of how the concentric balls are made, which is actually quite easy, they fail to recognise the obvious signs of poor workmanship in the carving and other features which frequently gives away the modern object.
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