The Corozo, known mainly as the vegetable ivory, is a material obtained from the seeds (Tagua) of a palm (the Phytelephas Macrocarpa) which grows in the humid and tropical region of Ecuador; it is considered a “sustainable resource” that despite its constant use remains inexhaustible. Once dried, the fruits get a consistency, a colour, and a look very similar to animal ivory.
It is mainly used for the preparation of: buttons, beads, jewelry, coatings, mosaics, floors, buttons and some musical instruments such as bagpipes; it has become an excellent substitute for both economic and ecological animal ivory.
The plant and the processing
The tagua is a plant that grows very slowly, has a solitary stem, and ripens after about 15 years. This is the main reason why it is not generally grown. The average tree has a height of 6-8 meters but can also reach 12 meters.
The palm is dioecious, that is it differs in two sexual types of plants, male and female. The female plant produces large fruits, mocochas or cabezas, composed of about 20 segments called pencos. Every year the plant produces 10-12 mocochas, each of which has an average diameter of 30-40 cm but can reach even 60 cm and a weight of over 12 kg. The mococha is the set of the pencos, which encloses 100-200 seeds.
Each seed is divided into six-seven parts, each of these parts encloses cells and each cell can contain 6-9 seeds; fresh seeds contain a flesh that is liquid and as a result of the maturation process the seed undergoes a transformation becoming in a short time highly resistant and of a ivory white color. The material that characterizes the Corozo, being composed of cellulose, in presence of fire is subject to burn and carbonize quickly.
The seeds have an average size of a walnut and are covered with various layers of hard and brown skin, while inside they are cream white. The skin can be left on the seed and smoothed to obtain a chocolate-colored seed. The seed can be smoothed further to obtain a pattern with grains, while it becomes completely white when the brown skin is completely smoothed and removed.
The germination of the seed of the Tagua lasts about 8 months. The immature seeds contain a white, sweet, edible liquid, which becomes gelatinous as the seeds ripen. In fact, after a maturation of about six months under the sun the material is ready to be processed, thanks to the processing takes on characteristics similar to elephant ivory, such as:
- Absence of flaking off.
However, the two types of ivory differ by:
- The fracture that for the animal ivory is chipped, for the Corozo is irregular
- The fluorescence which for the animal ivory is white-blue or yellowish, for the Corozo is white-bluish
- The density is higher for animal ivory.
Thanks to these singular characteristics, the button industry has been using Corozo since the mid-nineteenth century; its diffusion contributes to the conservation of nature, An alternative that allows man to make a fair profit by safeguarding elephants and preserving Ecuador’s forests.
Properties and uses
In some countries, the fresh fruits of vegetable ivory are consumed as food by both animals and humans, while the stones are boiled to obtain from the external fibres a kind of vegetable fat used for cooking; is also used for its medicinal properties.
However, the most interesting use of Tagua hazelnuts is to make objects, jewels, miniatures, buttons; since the hazelnuts are of different sizes, it is not possible to produce them massively and therefore industrial and they are made entirely by hand.
The United States military uniforms were made by Corozo during World War I and II. In 2005, Europe played an essential role in its export, in fact, many more fashion designers have started to use it and today we can find it in the most exclusive jewellery boutiques.