Ivory is prized for its close-grained texture, adhesive hardness, mellow color, and pleasing smoothness. It may be painted or bleached, and is an excellent material for carving. Large surfaces suitable for veneer are obtained by cutting spiral sheets around the tusk. Commercial uses of ivory include the manufacture of piano and organ keys, billiard balls, handles, and minor objects of decorative value. In modern industry, ivory is used in the manufacture of electrical appliances, including specialized electrical equipment for airplanes and radar.
Its use in art dates back to prehistoric times, when representations of animals were incised on tusks. Objects in ivory were created in ancient Egypt, Assyria, Crete, Mycenae, Greece, and Italy, and there are many biblical references to its use at least from the time of Solomon. Large Greek statues, such as the Athena of Phidias, were made in gold and ivory (chryselephantine), and the Romans made lavish use of ivory in furniture, implements of war, and decorative items. A considerable number of diptychs and panels in ivory, given as gifts primarily by Roman consuls, still exist. Ivory plaques, diptychs, boxes, liturgical objects, book covers, and small statues were made in great numbers from early Christian times until c.1400, but the production of these objects declined thereafter. Ivory carving was practiced both in W Europe and in the Byzantine Empire. In India, ivory carving and turning has been done from ancient times. In China and Japan ivory has been used for inlay and small objects, especially for statues and carvings of small size and great precision and beauty of detail. In the last few centuries in Europe and North America, ivory has been employed to decorate furniture, for small statues, and occasionally as a surface for miniature painting.