If you’ve browsed our jewelry collection, you have no doubt noticed that tagua, also called vegetable ivory, is one of our favorite materials. It’s not hard to see why – the palm fruit is as versatile as it is elegant and can be sculpted into almost any form. It can be polished down to its shiny enamel or left with some of its textured shell intact. It has long been a favorite of environmentalists and animal rights activists, as the naturally hard white enamel is a perfect alternative to elephant ivory. The fruit has long been popular in the Andes and other parts of South America, but in recent years, the fashion industry around the rest of the world has started to take note.
In the mid-twentieth-century, tagua almost became a staple of the international apparel industry. As the use of elephant ivory fell out of favor and was eventually banned in most of the world, manufacturers turned to tagua. For a few years, it was imported to the US in large quantities; that is until plastics took over. Thanks to massive oil subsidies that sprang up during and after WWII, nothing could compete in cost. But in recent years designers have been seeking out eco-friendly alternatives to petroleum-based plastic, and tagua is making a comeback.
Of course, environmental conservation isn’t the only advantage to tagua. The fruit’s light weight makes it an ideal material for jewelry and buttons. The enamel takes well to dyes of all colors, and each kernel has a natural pattern that shows through and adds character to the final product. As an increasing number of designers are discovering, tagua is an optimal material to make everything from tiny delicate beads to large chunky statement jewelry.
And of course, the environmental advantages to tagua are pretty great too. Despite its hardness and durability, tagua is completely biodegradable when discarded. Since harvesting tagua stimulates local economies in the Andes, it provides an alternative to clearcutting the forests. In fact, tagua can help us on the path toward reforestation; since as the palm fruit grows in popularity, demand increases to plant more trees. Tagua is generally picked from the ground after the pods naturally detach from the tree, so the entire harvesting process can be done without harming a single leaf.
Despite all these advantages, the use of tagua is still relatively rare outside of South and Central America. While independent designers from all walks of life of life are starting to embrace this miracle plant, it hasn’t yet reached the mass-market in the US or Europe. We sincerely hope more industry leaders will catch on soon. We also hope that people will celebrate and support the Andean artisans who have been working with this amazing palm fruit for generations.
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