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NUTS ABOUT TAGUA

A tagua nut sure has a lot of names. Like The Rain Forest Ivory or Vegetable Ivory.Other names are Corozo (also spelled Corrozzo), Binroji Nut (Japanese), Steinnuss(German), and Coquilla Nut. A tagua nut is the fruit of a palm tree, Phytelephasmacrocarpa, which flourishes in tropical rain forests from Paraguay to Panama.

Natives replant palm trees for their seeds instead of logging them, which saves a bitof the rain forests. They polish the shell of the seeds and typically carve them intothe shape of a living creature or beautiful jewelry. Just think, an object much like agem with all the qualities of ivory, but without harming wildlife.

Where tagua nuts grow high up in South American palms, there are about 40 shelledseeds to a cluster, called a cabeza. A mallet is used to get to the green andreasonably soft nut, with the consistency of Jell-O, from the hard casing. Then thenuts are shaped into different molds. A range of chisels can help form a variety of artpieces. Once the nut has ripened, it becomes very hard.

Some businesses customize tagua nuts with contracts. Being a fraction of the costof ivory, itís not a hard sell. Tagua vendors can toot their horn for indirectly savingelephants, whales, walrus and other species. God bless a natural, organic,resourceful product in plentiful supply!

There are other interesting facts about tagua nuts. Harvesting them appears totallyharmless to trees and forests. Twenty percent of all buttons were made of taguanuts in the 1920's. Ecuador continues to offer tagua buttons and enjoys a thrivingtagua jewelry market too. Other popular items are wine corks, key chains, dice,dominoes and chess pieces. Look further to find cane and umbrella handles, pipes,tiles, sewing needle cases, and the fine art of scrimshaw. Figurines are available inevery price range and talent.

The Drying Process is the trickiest part of utilizing tagua nuts. The hollow, softcenter is formed as the nut dries and hardens. Each nut has a small stem that issofter and more porous than the rest of the nut and projects from the outside inwardto the center. To work the nut, carving must be planned accordingly. Smaller nutsusually have smaller voids in the center.

It takes about 4 days to kiln-dry the nuts. Ecuadorian artisans find it is easier to workthe nut if it is only dried about 70%. That is still pretty hard. After completing thetagua figurine, they dry it further. This extra drying helps to insure that it will not cracklater. To achieve this extra step of drying, they put the pieces under paper or atowel and shine heat lamps onto the covering. This is similar to incubating a chickenegg - not too hot, just nice and warm.

You can buy tagua nuts dried to the 70% point to carve. About 8% will have cracks orflaws in them, but those can be utilized for different purposes. There are basicallyfive stages of shaping, detailing, sanding, polishing and drying. Most all those stagesare accomplished with a bench grinder.

If you want to color the carving, tagua accepts paint very well. Figurine artists inPanama are particularly well known for their brilliant sculptures of frogs, parrots andsea life. Beads are soaked in dye baths to make chromatic jewelry. And then thereísthe technique of applying color only to remove portions of it, exposing the whiteunderneath.

Although white is the most common color of tagua, there are others. Tagua isfermented when left in the rain, un-peeled. The shell rots or decays, which discolorsthe white ivory from yellow to chocolate brown. Aged tagua is available, taking onlyone to several years to yellow, which is similar to animal ivory.

The degree of yellowing may have something to do with the moisture content. If thetagua is not 100% dried, it tends to yellow more quickly. Witnesses give variedreports, but many claim very little yellowing up to 9 years. To prevent yellowing,never wrap in plastic, depriving air. A new technique gaining popularity is boiling tagua in vegetable oil. This essentiallyburns the tagua. The amount of time that you leave it in the oil determines the color.You can achieve many rich yellow and brown tones using this technique.

Another tagua craft is inlay. Several types of inlay can be used for color, but thebrown skin of the nut is typically applied. You simply sand the brown skin into apowder, mix it with glue and put it into the recesses that you have carved into thenut. After it dries, you sand it smooth and polish.

No matter what you call this lovely ivory something, itís truly a gift from nature. Letíssave a little rain forest and go shopping for tagua.

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Written by: Delia Montgomery, ChŪc Eco


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