56 Million Pounds of Tagua Exported in 1929 – Can Tagua Rise Again?

28 Jan

Tagua, also known as Vegetable Ivory, is the seed found within the pod of an Ivory Nut Palm. We use tagua in many of our Fair Trade products but few people know about the fascinating history of this important rainforest seed. 

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A Brief History

Up until World War II, tagua was a widely used material and was exported from South America on a massive scale.  In the early part of the 19th century approximately $5,000,000.00 worth of tagua seeds were exported annually from South America.  The major producing countries were Ecuador and Colombia; Ecuador reached a peak in 1929 when it exported 56,861,236 pounds of tagua. Throughout the 1920s, 20% of all buttons produced in the US were made from this material.  However, with the introduction of plastic, and other cheaper synthetic alternatives, the popularity of this unique natural material drastically declined.

How Hope for Women Uses Tagua Today

Tagua has exceptional carvability, which is where it’s nickname, Vegetable Ivory stems from. This quality makes it the perfect material to create jewelry from.  The tagua seed is removed from it’s pod, stripped from its outer shell and polished.  Depending on the desired look, the hull is either completely removed or only partially in order to create a striped “zebra” look.

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The Harvesting of Tagua

There is no harm done to the rainforest during the harvesting of tagua because these seeds are collected after they have fallen to the ground.  In fact, the collection of tagua helps to provide incentive to local forest inhabitants to keep the rainforest intact. At Hope for Women, we use two different types of tagua seeds from Colombia.  Chicon tagua grows in the upper montane rainforests in the Narino Department of Colombia and is collected by Awa Indians who are indigenous to the region.  Coastal tagua, which is bigger than chicon, grows in the Pacific coastal rainforests of southwestern Colombia and is collected by Afro-Colombians.  The collection of these seeds provides great opportunity and much needed income to both groups who harvest them, helping to improve their lives.

Afro-Colombian collectors

Afro-Colombian collectors

An Awa Indian collector

An Awa Indian collector

View this slideshow and video to see and learn more about the complete harvesting process:

The Finished Product

Finished whole tagua in multiple colors - both solid and zebra

Finished whole tagua in multiple colors – both solid and zebra

Tagua is an excellent material to work with for jewelry making not only because it can be cut, carved and polished with ease, but it also because it easily absorbs coloring agents.  This allows you to find tagua pieces in your favorite colors! Hope for Women artisans handcraft the tagua seeds into beautiful pieces of jewelry such as the ones below:

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