I’ve spent a lot of time in Africa and I have spent many hours watching and admiring elephants. They are such intelligent and gentle creatures. Yes, I did say gentle, though they do occasionally get upset when disturbed by humans, especially when a gun is pointed at them instead of a camera. Unfortunately, elephant poaching is still rampant in many African countries and the elephant population is still under threat due to the demand for their ivory tusks.
Whilst in Dieppe, waiting to catch the ferry back to the UK, I visit the Chateau-Museum which has the largest ivory collection in Europe with over 1000 pieces. Many are religious statues of the Virgin or Jesus on the cross, some are practical objects like fans and snuff boxes, while others are highly decorative and detailed. Each piece must have taken many hours of skilled crafting to produce and a great many originated in Dieppe. The work of one famous Dieppe ivory artist, Pierre-Adrien Graillon, is prominently featured in the museum.
It may seem strange that Dieppe became a centre for ivory carving but in the 16th century an explorer and privateer named Jehan Ango frequently arrived with items from the far off lands that he visited. Originally, the ivory from Africa was used to create religious objects but it soon became popular amongst the elite who saw the ownership ivory objects as being an important status symbol.
I am keen to find out more about the ivory carvers of Dieppe and how the ban on trading ivory has affected their livelihood. In the centre of town, on Rue Jehan Ango, two ivory shops still exist, owned by the last carvers of many generations. The first shop seems to be firmly closed, but in the second, I can see lights on in the window and someone moving inside. While I am studying a beautiful ivory model sailing ship, the door opens and I am greeted by an elderly, white haired gentleman who ushers me inside and asks me to leave my backpack in the hall. The interior is less like a shop and more like a museum storeroom with display cases and shelves crammed with unusual and intriguing objects. Classical music is playing from somewhere and a caged bird accompanies it with occasional squawks.
Philippe Ragault looks more like a mad scientist than an ivory carver and I find his demeanour a bit alarming. I was hoping to find someone who is proud of his profession and keen to demonstrate his unique talents. However, it soon becomes clear that he is bitter and resentful as he complains how the ecologists, while trying to prevent elephants from becoming extinct, have succeeded in causing the demise of the ivory traders instead. And it does seem a little unfair that even ivory taken from animals which die a natural death cannot be used to create such exquisite artwork. Perhaps his anger is misdirected as surely it is the Asian demand for a product which they believe can disperse misfortune and drive out evil spirits which has resulted in such tough restrictions regarding the sale of ivory. A report last year in the Telegraph newspaper seems to suggest that the Chinese market for ivory is thriving partly due to the fact that in 2008 Namibia, Zimbabwe, South Africa and Botswana –were allowed to sell their stockpiles of ivory to Japan and China in an attempt to control the elephant poaching.
Meanwhile, Mr Ragault is left to work with inferior materials such as hippopotamus teeth and walrus tusks. He uses both hand tools and more modern machines to create an assortment of art. Shadow and light are very important when working with ivory and he holds several pieces up to a spotlight in order for me to fully appreciate the luminescence. He also has a keen sense of humour which is carefully hidden in his art. By holding a piece at a different angle, an entirely new meaning can be found in the gestures of his subjects. He shows me one very old, phallic looking piece of a fat man in a pointed hat and tells me that it is magical and he means that quite literally.
Unfortunately, his own magical talent will soon be lost. At 76 years old, and with no children or apprentices to which he can pass down his trade, it is inevitable that the French ivory carvers will soon be extinct. Meanwhile, the poaching will continue, and the ivory tusks will still find their way to backstreet Asian carvers and into the display cases of wealthy, non-discerning people.