Human Ivory: being adorned by your own gem by Lucie Majerus

While researching abundant and scarce materials, I was intrigued by the amount of meat industry waste and the lack of ivory. Not only elephants have teeth, but what happens to cow and pig teeth? Why don’t we value other teeth as well? When I lost my own wisdom teeth, I kept them and came up with the idea of Human Ivory. Why wouldn’t we value our own material instead of seeking precious material from other species? How can I as a designer give value to human teeth outside of their initial context the mouth? All my process was written down in my Bachelor Thesis “Human Ivory”.

With this project, I want to twist our perspective on valuable materials and reconsider conventional preciousness. The concept is to suggest a new cultural behavior where we humans seek for preciousness within our own material. A tooth can only be harvested when it naturally falls out or when it has to pull out due to medical reasons. The idea is to turn a moment of loss into a more positive experience. So we first have to give in order to receive personal jewellery.  “Human Ivory” proposes an egalitarian jewellery collection, where the body is being adorned by its own gem, polished from recognizable teeth into an abstract but familiar pearl shape. By the careful transformation of smoothening of the tooth, a possible disgust association of a human tooth evolves into attraction and beauty.

The idea is that people can send me their own teeth and I will make personal jewellery for them. For the materialization of the collection, I asked my dentist to collect adult teeth for me to be able to experiment. Furthermore, I used my own wisdom teeth for the ring. Moreover, I got teeth from two of my teachers at the Design Academy Eindhoven as test cases, so I made personal jewellery for them.

Teeth are the hardest part of the human body, but they are softer than stones. As they are very small, one needs a lot of patience and love for details to work on them. Also, every tooth is different in shape, size, and strength, so I need to adapt each time to the making process. I used all different adult teeth, our molars are big enough to make pearl shapes and incisors are longer and become therefore more drop shaped gems. I clean them in bleach before polishing them. If a tooth has a hole, I will repair it like a dentist with a white filler. Inspired by the Japanese philosophy about the beauty of imperfection, I play with the idea that we can become more beautiful through our own imperfection. You can still get a nice pearl with a visible repair. During the process, my teachers, who were my test cases, really appreciated the transformation. In October, I presented my project at the Graduation Show of the Design Academy Eindhoven during Dutch Design Week. Surprisingly, most people aren’t creeped out by the sight of the jewellery, but really like the idea. Some regret that they didn’t keep their tooth at the dentist and some, who will have teeth taken out soon, is now looking forward to it.  On social media, the reactions are balanced, some appreciate the concept others are put-off.

I would like to continue the project to bring it into reality and now take commissions for bespoke jewellery. If you lose a tooth at the dentist I can make your jewellery out of it. Maybe this concept could decrease the traumatic dentist experience?

Moreover, I am intrigued to research the distinction between material and personal value. How can I as a designer give value to human teeth outside of their initial context the mouth? I am interested in mining the mouth and shaping our teeth out of their usual context to change the way we look at them.  Does turning a human tooth into new shape increase its value? Maybe this new perception could be a statement against illegal poaching for elephant ivory?

Human ivory has a minimalist approach to adornment and aims as a suggestion to reconsider conventional preciousness. Furthermore, it is about valuing what we already have gotten in ourselves, metaphorically for own values within ourselves instead of materialistic values, and physically for already owning our own valuable material. Less is more.

Every human has teeth. Therefore, it also stands for an egalitarian approach towards humankind. We are all the same, but different. Additionally, this project offers food for thought about the animal and human relationship.

Interview with Lucie Majerus / Images © Matan Bellemakers