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Scrimshaw

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Scrimshaw is a true American folk art which was perfected and advanced by sailers in North America dating back to the whaling days of over 200 years ago; and perhaps further back to ancient native cultures such as the pre-historic Alaska and Siberian Punik tribes who were known to decorate and etch their ivory art, cultural decorations, and even ivory spear and arrow points with what could be defined as primitive scrimshaw. The sailers had months at sea, sometimes even entrapped in the arctic ice over the winters, where they used ivory from whales teeth, or walrus ivory traded with the northern eskimos, to create fine detailed inked etchings of different scenes. 

At the Russian American Company store in Sitka Alaska, and on our website, we keep this tradition alive, featuring now mostly scrimshaw on fossil ivory, either wooly-mammoth ivory at least 12,000 years old; or fossil walrus tusks unearthed in the mud and sands of the north Alaska coasts on native Alaska tribal lands. Only ethnic native first-nations artists can continue to produce contemporary scrimshaw on "fresh" or new ivory, as a special exception of the Marine Mammal protection act allows them this cultural right. Keep in mind that northern Alaska first-nations tribes are continuing to subsistence hunt the walrus for food, as they have done for over 2,000 years; and this tradition includes utilizing every part of the animal, including creating art as well as practical implements out of the ivory tusks. So Alaska natives can scrimshaw new ivory, but all other scrimshanders must do their work on legal fossilized ivories, bone, or antler.

The art of scrimshaw is painstaking, first preparing the surface to be etched by fine sanding and polishing, in fossil ivories usually down through the outside layers that have been colored and stained by the minerals in the soil where the old ivory laid for thousands of years. Once through the "bark" of a tusk or fragment of fossil ivory, the creamy white surface is revealed and prepared. First, the scrimshaw artist must coat the ivory with a black temporary layer of ink, which allows the etching with a fine point steel hand tool or heavy needle to come out in white relief. The lines are actually etched or carved into the surface; and when the scene is finished, then the temporary black ink is removed, and a final inking is done with a permanent black ink, or even many colored inks for the best colored scrimshaw. This labor intensive technique takes many many labor hours, and the best scrimshaw artists, like the best of any producers of fine art, can command a price for their works accordingly. It is now possible to create "faux" scrimshaw using lasers and machines; and most of the lower priced "souvenir" scrimshaw is produced that way; but only true hand-scrimshaw is considered 

The Russian American Company represents not only today's best Alaskan scrimshanders, such as Dennis Simms and George Vuxon plus other recognized native and non-native Alaskans working in ivory and bone, but also feature some of the best producers of hand-scrimshaw from the lower forty-eight states. Artists like Gary Dorning, David Adams, EV Wick, or Paul Logan, who's works are featured in some of the finest scrimshaw collections worldwide, also grace the cases of our gallery with their museum-quality works. Individual collectors pieces, whole scrimshawed fossil ivory tusks, scrimshaw designer jewelry set in sterling silver, or even scrimshawed custom ivory knife handles can be found in our store.

Some of the finest detail scrimshaw is now being done on Alaskan raw materials: we offer rare and unusual pieces and whole fossil walrus tusks with beautiful colored hand scrimshaw or traditional black-inked tusks, or scrimshawed jewelry, scrimshawed knife handles, and even rarer whole mammoth tusks unearthed in Alaska and scrimmed by Alaskan artists that are unique works of this ancient art.

Please think of the Russian American Company as purveyors of some of the finest authentic scrimshaw, by the finest of Alaskan and American contemporary scrimshanders. Whether it is an addition to your museum quality scrimshaw collection, or a unique gift for a loved one, our stores have the finest available anywhere in Alaska.