Theater & art

Letters to the Arts Editor

Chip Van Dyke/Peabody Essex Museum

Awe-struck by an intricate ivory ball

Re: “Chinese ivory gone berserk” (g, May 29, Sebastian Smee): I had the same reaction Smee did when I first saw a carved ivory ball like that. I was a naval officer many years ago in Hong Kong and came to an ivory shop on a street of shops on Victoria Island. I went in and asked the Chinese fellow behind the counter how they were ever able to carve one ball inside the other inside the other, etc. He smiled and waved for me to come behind the counter where he was opening a big trapdoor.

I followed him down steep steps to an almost dark cellar. I could see a big pile of elephant tusks off to one side, stacked neatly, as we went toward a door with light around the edges.

He opened the door, and there was the carving shop. There must have been a dozen artisans carving away on different types of amazing ivory objects. We went over to a fellow at a separate workbench with four-way screw clamps holding a perfectly round ivory ball in place. He was using the little tool with a hook Smee described to meticulously slice around one of the several holes in the ball to form one of the inner balls. My guide told me that the artisan who worked on the ball object had to work with wood for at least two years before being allowed to work on ivory. There was a part of the apparatus, as I recall, that helped him to scribe the start of a new ball at exactly the proper depth.


I now have one of those balls on a stand on top of my piano. I marvel at it every day. This was back in the ’50s, and the face of the mountain on Victoria Island was covered with cardboard and tin shacks — where today it is packed with some of the most expensive real estate in the world. Most of the people were really poor, but they developed amazing crafts to make a living.

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As Smee’s article said, some of those crafts were passed on through the generations from the 14th century. Of course the finer pieces appealed to the wealthiest around the world, but these people were selling somewhat lesser versions of these same objects to visitors. They were still delicate lacy designs with symmetrical designs carved into the inner layers.



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