Polished and dyed tagua seeds
What is tagua? Tagua, pronounced “tah-gwa,” and often referred to as “vegetable ivory,” is the seed of several varieties of tropical palms. The tagua palms grow in the shade of other rain forest trees and in open wet areas. When mature, the tagua seeds fall to the forest floor, where they are harvested by hand. Unlike the harvesting of elephant ivory, the palm tree is not harmed in any way. The most common tagua palm in Panama is Phytelephas Seemannii, which produces an exceptionally hard variety of tagua.
Before plastics replaced tagua in the 1930’s, Panama, Colombia, Ecuador and Brazil exported large quantities of tagua to the United States and Europe where it was made into buttons and other small items usually made of animal ivory. In the 1920’s, 20% of all buttons produced in the United States were made of tagua. Small factories in Ecuador still do a thriving business manufacturing buttons for European and Japanese fashion designers.
Pioneered by Selerino Cheucarama, a Wounaan, and one of the best master carvers, the Wounaan have recently extended their carving skills to the tagua seeds; and have created a unique and imaginative art form inspired by the flora and fauna of the rain forest. The Wounaan artisans carve the tagua with hand tools (often just sharpened screwdrivers.) The high gloss finish is obtained by sanding and polishing with fine sandpaper and other abrasive materials.
The Wounaan are master artisans, and are well known for their exceptionally fine quality baskets (called hosig di) and their beautiful cocobolo wood and tagua carvings. In addition to creating objects for sale, skilled wood carving has many traditional uses in the Wounaan culture, including making hunting weapons, canoe paddles, household furnishings, and ceremonial objects.
See a selection of tagua carvings in my flickr gallery.