August 06, 2014

Ivory trade

The ivory debacle currently impacting pipers has taken the piping world by storm, with pipers everywhere wondering if they should travel with their ivory-mounted drones for fear of them being confiscated by an over-zealous border dude looking to ramp up his quota of seized contraband.

I support an all-out ban on elephant ivory for anything. I don’t like the fact that ivory is featured on the 80-year-old pipes that I play, which were made when early plastic or Bakelite was more expensive than the seemingly endless supply of cheap tusks from far away Africa, so there’s a lot of it on a lot of sets of older pipes.

I don’t know of a serious piper anywhere who ever salivated over anything but the sound of vintage drones. Ivory? Silver? Nickel? Whatever. Give me tone over anything, and, if you think about it, pricing vintage drones by adornment is sort of misguided. If they sound equally good, there should be no more premium placed on ivory than on yellowed early plastic.

Safe to say, this situation will not improve. This is about making ivory socially unacceptable to use or own in any form. No exceptions. The theory goes that, simply by having an antique chess set with ivory pieces, or wearing an old coat made from Russian snow leopard fur, or owning a set of 1936 silver and ivory Lawries, one is implicitly condoning the exploitation of endangered species for frivolous consumption.

I’m no fan of fur, but I have one of those musquash or muskrat sporrans mainly because I like the traditional look and am led to believe that it was repurposed Highland roadkill. Seems sensible to me to let that poor dead critter live another life on my crotch. (Wait, that didn’t come out right . . .)

But, back to the point, a piper who has only a vintage ivory-mounted instrument – unless he or she plans to never leave the country – has three choices: retrofit the pipes with imitation ivory or silver, or acquire another instrument. The first option is abhorrent and gives me the heebie-jeebies. It would be like turning a mint 1965 E-Type Jaguar into a hybrid to save fuel, or sawing the legs off a fine Chippendale table to make a stool.

Buying another set of pipes would be easy, by comparison. But if I knew of a pipe maker that I personally thought could exceed or even match the long-term quality of what I play now, I might have gone for them already. The ideal would be sourcing another set of vintage pipes, but which do not feature ivory, but these pre-1950 sets of all-silver Hendersons or Lawries are endangered species on their own.

If I were a bagpipe maker I would be all over this. To be sure, there’s not a self-respecting maker who likes to see any pipes lost, but as business people they should be gearing up marketing campaigns to woo those affected, who are now considering their options. There will be a growing need, and those who are already in the business of duplicating vintage drones I would think are in a particularly advantageous position.

I’m one of those people affected. I don’t plan to travel outside of my home country with the pipes I play now. It’s simply not worth it. Like hundreds of other pipers, I’m suddenly considering my options – and saving up for what I might have to purchase.

This unfortunate situation has one bright side: it is good for the piping and drumming economy.


  1. While it’s true that for those of us with no plans to travel outside the country, there’s no immediate concern. We can legally (at least in the US) possess, buy, and sell these instruments. For now. 10 years ago, we paid it little, if any thought. 5 years ago, we kind of rolled our eyes a bit and thought we’re such small fish they won’t pay attention to us. Today, some of us are considering getting the certificate for pipes bought in the beer tent from “a guy from that one band” all with cash and no paperwork when an appraisal from Mr. Bowen might be enough to get the cert. That might not be quite so easy in 5 more years. And it’s entirely possible that troubles could arise down the road for even those of us with no travel plans.

  2. A touchy subject indeed. I’m not worried myself as at the present time I have 2 sets of pipes with silver & ivory, 2 sets with plastic & metal, and 2 sets made of polypenco (yes, a slight bit of overkill on my part…don’t ask….). Two of these sets are “Hardiesons” of the same vintage, one plastic and one ivory, making switching them around rather seemless when using the same silver stocks and additionally allowing for use of the same reeds without having to do any adjusting. Well, goody for me. Not everyone has that option….
    But, let’s look at another possible overly politically correct extension of the present silliness over long dead elephant parts, which may or may not have been extracted from a live animal before your father was born. What if someone bans the sale of Blackwood resulting in anything made of Blackwood in the last 100 years suddenly becoming taboo? What now? Delrin/Nylon/Polypenco?
    Then suppose these same annually (sic) retentive control freaks ban the use of plastics since they are bad for the environment and your health (can u say carcinogenic?). What now?
    Wouldn’t it simply be better to correct the present over zealous rules around ivory products to reflect the real issue, which is the production of articles made with new ivory? You can’t help dead elephants and it is a complete waste to through away the old parts.
    Bagpipe makers have more or less unofficially declared that all new products shall not contain ivory. Can’t we have our associations lobby the governments to make exceptions for older registered bagpipes with less stringent rules allowing ease of movement of these instruments between countries that don’t have herds of elephants roaming around?
    It’s up to all of us through our respective associations working with our respective governments to create the possibility of an improved registration system. The sooner we take proactive action on this, the better.

  3. I could not agree with your post more. My solution was to get Rick at Dunbar to clone my S/I Robertson’s using the pattern that Don Robertson developed some time back. They sound great and I don’t have to worry about them.

  4. Andrew, I was chatting yesterday with one of our tenor drummers in the Windsor Police band who lives in Sarnia and was crossing at Port Huron to take the shorter way to Windsor through Detroit. When asked by Port Huron Customs the purpose of her trip she replied about attending band practice. “What kind of band?” asks the customs official. “A pipe band.” “Are you bringing any bagpipes across the border?” was his reply. So if they are looking at Port Huron, they’re undoubtedly searching at every port of entry. Now, in a conversation with a friend here in Windsor with old Hendersons, he has gone through the CITES procedure and been given the only port of entry to the U.S. as Chicago. But he lives in Windsor. My understanding is that one has to apply each time to enter the U.S. with said pipes other than the given port of entry with an application which costs $280 (USD). Ron Bowen on his website explains the entire situation and provides citation to four articles by a Mr. Doug Bandow from Forbes magazine about how wrong-headed the American approach is to this whole issue of ivory, its provenance and the quest to save elephants. Now, my question is this: what about pipes with imitation ivory? Does one have to prove they are imitation and will they subject the

  5. Sorry, it seems I must have hit the wrong button or something in midstroke in my original comment. D’oh. What I was going to ask is what about imitation ivory pipes going across borders, especially the American? Is the onus on the owner to prove they’re imitation? Will they be subject to a red hot needle stuck in a ferrule or projecting mount to see if the catalin bubbles? Yikes! And I’d like to ask those who travelled to Scotland from overseas if they had any hassles when entering with ivory pipes. Thanks a lot Andrew and cheers, Syd Girling



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