Pink Ivory

(Berchemia zeyhericer)

All trees have a story to tell. A careful observer with a discerning eye can tell a trees age, whether it grew fast or slow and perhaps if there is some exciting figure in the wood hidden inside. Pink Ivory has a story and it involves African royalty.

Native to the southern regions of continental Africa, especially Zimbabwe, Mozambique and South Africa, Pink Ivory is the Royal tree of the Zulus. Only members of the royal family were allowed to possess it.  Possession by other tribe members was reportedly punishment by death. The Zulu king carried with him a walking stick call a knob-kerries made of Pink Ivory and was adorned with jewelry made from its wood as well. Colonial intervention in the late 19th century divided the Zulus into separate kingdoms and the ceremonial role of Pink Ivory declined; however, the mystique surrounding Pink Ivory continues to this day.

The tree itself can grow up to 120 feet tall, but typically averages around 50-60 feet  It can be found growing in dense stands in a variety of habitats from wooded areas to rocky habitats.  It is an important species ecologically.  Pink Ivory produces a delicious fruit that is eaten by many animals from baboons to porcupines. Giraffes will feed on the leaves. Humans also harvest the fruit and it is considered an important source of income. It is the distinctive pink colour of the heartwood of Pink Ivory that gives it its reputation. The colour of the heartwood ranges from a brownish red to a bright neon pink. It is the latter shade that is the most desirable and probably the most difficult to obtain. We should remember that colour pigments in trees are chemicals produced by the tree to fight off pests not to entice woodworkers. Pink Ivory, as a result, is a durable wood although it is rarely used in exterior applications.

The tree tends to grow irregularly, not straight and tall. As a result, the grain can often be irregular, so Pink Ivory rarely produces much wood in lumber form. Texture-wise it is fine and even, perfect for holding detail in carvings and turnings. The wood is hard and dense and will blunt cutting edges. Tearout is common when lumber is milled to dimension. However, the scarcity of lumber means that most woodworkers will never have to deal with this problem.

Pink Ivory is typically found as small blocks and squares, perfect for small decorative objects. Apart from its historical applications among the Zulu, Pink Ivory is found in pool cues, wine stoppers, small boxes, jewelry, knife handles and chessmen. Pink Ivory is a much-desired wood for all sorts of turned objects due to its colour and rarity.

But how rare is Pink Ivory? There is some concern that the scarcity of Pink Ivory is a marketing ploy to maintain its high price. It is the bright pink pieces that are the most desirable and are probably the most difficult to source. The cutting of Pink Ivory in South Africa is strictly regulated and it also a factor in its high pricing. On the plus side, this limits its exploitation and as a result Pink Ivory is not considered a species that is threatened.

Pink Ivory will occasionally show up in the inventories of specialty wood dealers. This is a wood that most craftspeople will save for a special project worthy of its pedigree. I have several pieces waiting patiently for such an application. Spectacular in appearance, Pink Ivory is definitely a wood worth waiting for.


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