Skeletal Materials

Skeletal materials including horn, ivory, antler and bone are frequently used for both decorative and functional purposes in construction of edged weapons as they were in many household tools for construction, agriculture and other types. The natural mechanical strength and shape of these materials lended themselves well to tool use. They were also easily worked using familiar methods such as cutting and splitting, smoothing, polishing, turning, drilling, and so forth. 

Trade and in some cases ownership of certain types of horn and bone is banned under international law.


Horn is one of the most common materials used in edged weapons. It is strong, has esthetically pleasing colors, a texture that makes it firm in the hand, and it is easily crafted into a variety of shapes and designs.


Rhino horn laminae, or hairline features

Rhino horn is known and valued for beauty as well as important qualities such as sturdiness, durability, ease of grip, lightness in weight, and other factors. Rhino horn is made of keratin, the same as found in hair and fingernails. The important physical properties of rhino horn are in part due to that it is solid throughout. 

The use of rhino horn for the hilt of a jambiya (“saifani) is a key element of status and tradition in Arabia. Rhino horn is quite beautiful and is also believed to imbue a weapon with special properties. Both age and handling over time change the appearance of rhino horn, and the features this process reveals, such as hairlines (laminae) have become a method not only for dating the horn but also for its prestige and aesthetic value in those cultures who use and appreciate rhino horn such as in Yemen. Rhino horn is naturally a light grayish brown. As it ages (and is handled), the color takes rich colors of green.


Like rhino horn, water buffalo (kerbau, horbo, tedong) horn also changes color, feel and improves in appearance and value with age. Its ready availability (unlike rhino horn, who trade is illegal under international law) makes water buffalo horn a preferred substitute. It is durable and can easily be carved.

Water buffalo horn is naturally black and this is most commonly found. Sometimes a mixture of white and gray is found. More rare are natural tints of red and white. The horn can be processed with common chemicals to obtain other colors including white, red, yellow.

examples of water buffalo horn

Unpolished Natural Black Water Buffalo Horn

Two polished water buffalo horns of different colors

Polished Water Buffalo Horn in Two Natural Colors


IMPORTANT: Ivory is a strictly regulated substance under international law and the domestic laws of many countries. Read more here about the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).

Ivory is durable, easily carved, and remains beautiful for a very long time. These properties made it highly desireable for use in ethnographic weapons across the world. The word “ivory” is actually a catchall term that applies to all mammalian teeth and tusks that are large enough to be worked and of commercial interest. 

The chemical structure of teeth and tusks in mammals is identical, regardless of species. Like horn, it has many desireable physical and aesthetic properties. It is easy to carve. Ivory from elephants is held in high regard, but the ivory from many animals can be found in ethnographic edged weapons. For example, ivory from walrus, hippopotamus, whale, manatee, narwhal and wart hog are all used in various parts of the world. Ivory is typically white in color.

Various materials are also used that have similar appearance and properties to ivory. These include Bone, Shell, the casque of helmeted hornbill (a bright red attachment to the bird’s bill), and vegetable ivory (the nuts of certain palm trees in the subfamily of Phytelephas macrocarpa) which has similar structure to rhino horn.




Bone, Antler, Ivory and Horn: The Technology of Skeletal Materials Since the Roman Period

The Yemeni janbiya and its various parts, by Marie Christine Heinze, Jemen-Report 45/2014

Identification Guide for Ivory and Ivory Substitutes