‘Scratching out a living’

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This article originally appeared in the May 22 issue of the Wareham Courier.

Scrimshaw is inextricably linked with New England’s whaling heritage, so, for many, the art is lost in the past with the industry that birthed it.

For Jeff Pierce, however, scrimshaw is a lot more than just an antique sitting on a shelf. The owner of Originals by Pierce & Company, Pierce has made a living off the New England art form.

“Scrimshaw is America’s original art form,” Pierce said.

With roots stretching back to the native peoples of North America, the art form took on a life of its own as Americans took to the sea. Scrimshaw is a simple form of engraving on a polished bone or ivory.

The artist covers the polished surface in water-soluble ink – one that can be easily wiped from the polished surface – and then carefully scratches out an image. The ink stains the scratches and, when the rest is wiped away, the image remains.

For whalers, like those based out of New Bedford, a voyage could last for years with long hours of idleness while they searched out the sperm whales and right whales to harvest the blubber and the bones. For the most part the objects that they made were utilitarian: buttons, pins, hooks and a myriad of other items that might be useful on a ship.

The teeth might also be turned into belaying pins or clubs for more unfortunate uses against marine life. As voyages grew longer as Yankee ships went father and farther from their home ports, the art form grew more elaborate.

Sailors would copy designs from books aboard the ships and dedicate hours to scratching them out and improvising on the themes that were near and dear to their hearts, from their ships to the whales they spent their lives pursuing.

“I know one book featured a female pirate, and that was a very popular subject,” Pierce said.

Scrimshaw largely rose and fell alongside of the whaling industry. When whales were plentiful it flourished, but as whalers hunted them to near extinction the art diminished.

Pierce picked up scrimshaw as a hobby in the 1960s as something to while away the hours. Growing up on the South Coast during that era, there was something of a revival of the art through jewelry and accessories, and Pierce’s hobby grew into a side business as he sold to friends, family and a growing circle of customers through college.

When he joined the navy, he got a taste of what life had been like for the whalers who began his hobby. What started with a kit and instructions from a few experienced artisans would soon grow into his life’s work.

“Sometimes I wonder if I should have used my degree for something, or if I should have been more ambitious, but I’m doing something I love,” he said.

His work as a scrimshander has taken him all over the country and around the world for trade shows and sales from Japan to Atlanta. His company operates a catalogue business out of Fairhaven, with a network of artists who pick up the work and fill orders from stores all over for specific pieces and designs.

The business of scrimshaw has grown a lot more complicated over the decades that Pierce has been pursuing it thanks to a constantly evolving regulatory environment. In the face of whaling, whale populations are threatened with extinction so in 1973 the United States government passed the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

The law made it illegal to commercially import ivories from marine animals, sharply curtailing the available supply. That act, and laws to protect endangered species, also complicated interstate sales of scrimshaw using certain kinds of bone and ivories. In order to avoid these laws, scrimshanders search estate sales and hunt for old caches of ivory that are grandfathered in under the statutes and carefully check their sources to make sure that they’re strictly legal.

Pierce recalled an incident almost 30 years ago where he sold a few pieces to the Smithsonian and when they advertised the collection he had customs agents searching his home and business for evidence of smuggling.

These regulations mean that scrimshanders have had to play a little fast and loose with the strict definition of their art, once restricted to marine animal bone and ivory, in order to stay in business. One material that scrimshanders have turned to is antler. While the size and shape of antlers are more variable than the tusks and teeth of whales and walruses, animals typically shed their antlers annually so they’re much more sustainable.

Another material is so-called ancient ivory. Found in the colder parts of the world like Siberia and Alaska, ancient ivory comes from the preserved tusks of mammoths or other creatures long dead and gone. The permafrost in these northern reaches is ideal for preserving the ivory with little loss in quality, however the ivory can sometimes absorb minerals and take on different color variations.

Each material has its own particular quirks, largely unseen by those who haven’t studied up on the materials. There are variations in hardness, in grain and in color that subtly affect the art. There are even variations between the sexes of the animals. A third option available to modern artisans is to simply fake it. There are a variety of plastics that can mimic the look and feel of ivory to a certain degree and, according to Pierce, the quality of imitations has improved a lot since “French” ivory was first introduced.

It’s an option that Pierce dismisses even though it might hurt his business as he faces competition from fakes that are hard to distinguish from the genuine article without testing.

“Some people don’t care as long as it looks good,” Pierce said.

As ivory becomes increasingly hard to find, competition from plastics winnows away at margins. Outsourcing is also a problem that looms on the horizon because, like any craft, much of scrimshaw’s cost comes through the labor of the artisans that create it.

“We’re just scratching out a living,” he said.

More examples of scrimshaw can be found at www.originalpierce.com. IMG_1725 copy