Tag Archives: hand carved ivory Mahjong

Many people think they have ivory mahjong sets, either because they assume they do or that is what they have been told. Some people do have ivory tiles, but most people don't. But just because tiles are not made of ivory does not mean they are less valuable. In fact, some of the most expensive sets sold recently are bone and bamboo, not ivory and bamboo or pure ivory.

Why is it that some sets made of bone are more expensive than those made of ivory? The answer is simple: it is all about the carving and the designs on the tiles. In the 1920s, the heyday for Mahjong designers and carvers, China was very poor and ivory was in short supply. In fact, bone was scarce too. When China ran out of bone they were able to purchase some from the United States, from the stockyards in Chicago and the cattle ranchers in Nebraska. The best parts of the bone were bought by the best workshops, and they turned out high quality sets. Of course ivory was carved in the best workshops too, but it might have been that the shops were depending more on the ivory material alone to sell the set, and thus were not as inspired to make sets with wonderful designs that would make people want to buy the tiles.

This exquisite bone and bamboo set, seen below, recently sold for almost $10,000. And yes, for bone and bamboo, but look at the carvings and the images. Absolutely beautiful. In fact, each tile is a masterpiece. The Dots come first (peaches, with the One Dot a curled up Dragon often copied as joker tiles on the modern sets), Winds with butterflies in the corners, and Dragons with dragons and phoenixes, Flowers perhaps illustrating a tale of combat, and Craks with special Chinese numbers usually used by banks, surrounded by longevity symbols including endless knots, and Bams made of Bamboo shoots (and look at that divine One Bam bird with the ribbon in its mouth, symbolizing China's military strength).

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This next set is solid ivory, and it sold for less than half of the above set. It is easy to see why. Yes, the carving is lovely, but the designs are much more unusual and intricate on the bone and bamboo set.

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You will notice that the surface of the ivory is smooth.

Bone often has small channels in it, the haversian system, as you can see below, even in this very beautifully carved set.

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note small dots on the side of the bone, remnants of the haversian system
note small dots on the side of the bone, remnants of the haversian system


Below are two photos of ivory, seen from the top and the side.

notice the slightly wavy varied tones in these ivory tiles
notice the slightly wavy varied tones in these ivory tiles
the cross-hatching only found in ivory is noticeable on the sides of these tiles
the cross-hatching only found in ivory is noticeable on the sides of these tiles

Ivory has cross-hatching known as Schreger lines, but sometimes several pieces need to be examined to see it, depending on where on the tusk the pieces came from. For more views of ivory, please click here to see the page devoted to ivory and French Ivory.




met qingdynqilin

Often we see creatures and we have a hard time identifying them; they just don't seem to be any type of animal we are familiar with. One such creature is seen above, a qilin on an official's badge from the Qing Dynasty in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum. Because it is horned, it is sometimes referred to as a unicorn.

Welch writes

"The Chinese mythical animal known in Chinese as the qilin is sometimes erroneously referred to as the "Chinese unicorn" or even a chimera (although this is a specific Greek mythological animal with a lion's head, goat's body and serpent's tail) The qilin is not a unicorn as it has two horns and can be identified by its green (or blue) scaled deer's body (which has become more horse-shaped over time) dragon's head, horn and hooves...(and) bushy tail."

We can certainly see the scales, and the hooves on the creature above, as well as the prominent horns. The background shows some ruyi shaped clouds, waves and flames.

According to Welch

"Mythical animals usually have flames surrounding or emanating from their legs to emphasize their powerful and supernatural nature."

The qilin is a benevolent creature, and represents many positive attributes. And qilin sightings are rare, as can be seen by this post.

Qilin appear in Mahjong as well but they might be hidden.  We don't have any records or write-ups by the craftsmen who made these works of art, so we really won't know for sure what they are. Sometimes we just have to guess. We'll start with the biggest stretch as to what creature we are seeing.



Above we have a detail of two creatures made of inlaid bone on a Mahjong box. We don't know if they are qilin, but they might be. Behind their ears you can make out another protrusion which may well be a horn. They each have a very bushy tail, just like the one we see on the qilin. If they are a qilin, they certainly are very benevolent.



Above is a detail of a leather embossed Mahjong box. At first I thought that if you looked carefully, you would be able to make out two qilin, on either side of a globe, with flames surrounding them, a scene not unlike the one we just saw on the inlaid box. But a sharp-eyed reader told me these probably are lions, because he was able to see the five toes on their feet! So no qilin here.

But we do have a qilin on another set, actually called the Qilin Mahjong set:

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Many of you have probably seen this advertised. You can see the qilin proudly strutting, his bushy tail up and his hooves. I won't make that mistake again! He is surrounded by  round ruyi shaped clouds.


Here follows a real treat: an ivory Mahjong tile qilin:


Isn't he fabulous? It is interesting how the crosshatching of the ivory works well with the scales on the qilin.

Our thanks to mahjongmahjong for the use of their tile.

The book I wrote with Ann Israel is being published by Tuttle. To see more about it:

www.mahjonggtheartof thegame.com

To order it click here:


or here from Amazon