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Tagua Nut Products - Decline and Revival

The story of tagua: its export history

As reported by Anne Underwood in a 1991 article in International Wildlife Magazine, tagua nuts were introduced to Europe in the year 1865 by a transport ship sailing from South America to Hamburg in Germany. The ship was using an unusual cargo for ballast: large amounts of tagua nuts. When the ship arrived in Hamburg, dockworkers tinkering with the tagua noticed their resemblance to precious whale ivory, a material used by sailors since the mid 1700s for scrimshaw engraving.

Scrimshaw scrollwork and engravings up to that time had been done in bone and whale teeth. Elegant carvings and jewelry were also created from elephant ivory. Now a new and exotic ivory-like plant material had become abundantly available that did not require the harvesting of marine animals or elephants.

Thus began the exportation of ivory-nuts from South America to Europe: a trade that has boomed for 80 years, and has still lasted, although at a much reduced scale, up to our present time. At the beginning of the twentieth century, Ecuador and Colombia were shipping around 40,000 tons of tagua ivory nuts per year to the United States and Europe. The Ecuadorian coastal city of Manta was enriched by its prominent role in shipping raw tagua nuts worldwide.

From the 1800s until the end of World War II, there was a flourishing global tagua nut industry. It was mostly raw tagua nuts that were exported and then machined in other nations. Tagua was used to make high quality buttons for the US clothing industry, with approximately 20% of all buttons used in American clothing being made from tagua. Many US soldiers wore uniforms with tagua ivory nut buttons.

Many fine Victorian era items being sold as rare elephant “ivory” were actually made from tagua. It was used in jewelry, dice, domino and chess pieces, knife, cane and umbrella handles, piano keys and pipes.

As with so many other natural materials that have been replaced by newer synthetic materials, tagua use declined as importing markets substituted cheap plastic materials in their place.

Today tagua is making a comeback. Use of ivory from many animals that have been hunted to near extinction has placed them on the list of endangered species. As a result, severe restrictions on the harvesting of ivory from elephants, wales and walruses have been put into effect in most nations. The idea of having ivory that is both animal and eco friendly appeals to environmentally conscious consumers.

Tagua which had become almost unknown to consumers in Europe and most of the countries that used to import the raw tagua nuts in such large quantities, is now making a reappearance as a natural material with many possibilites. Most of the processing of tagua into buttons and handicrafts is done in South America, and the final products exported to boutiques and gift shops worldwide. In the past it was mostly the raw nuts that were exported.

Major bead supply companies in the United States are selling tagua beads for do it yourself jewelry designers. Ecuadorians that have emigrated to other nations are designing tagua, having family and co-ops in Ecuador produce the merchandise, and exhibiting tagua at major jewelry and home design exhibitions. Consumers are not only enthusiastic about the eco and animal friendly nature of the material, but also dedicated to assisting with raising the living standards of the crafts people in the Amazon working with this beautiful material. We at Ecuador Craft are delighted to produce beautiful articles from this amazing natural material.