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Micronesian Ivory Nut Studio Buttons

Discover how installing a water system in a remote village sparked Bob Bensen's journey into creating hand-made ivory nut buttons.
Image 1--Bob at lathe
Bob Benson creating a button in his workshop
Image 4 back of buttons
Shown from the back, the base is turned to create a self-shank
Bob uses small tools to create small buttons
Image 2 Bobs buttons
The embellishments include turquoise, mother-of-pearl, and other stones and glass
Image 5Bobs Moon
The carved bone Man in the Moon shows Bob's skill in creating a work of art

I first traveled to Micronesia in 1980. I stayed in a small, remote village for about a month. In 1982 I returned and put in a running water system for the village of about 300 people. When I was leaving, the village chief gave me a bag full of palm nuts and told me, “This is the only place in the world these trees grow; they are ivory nuts.” So, since 1982 I have been working with the nut, teaching the villagers how to harvest it properly and building drying sheds to air-dry the seed.

In 1986 I started importing large shipments—at that time 1,000 pounds. With this larger shipment, I devoted more time turning the ivory nut into something, and since it had a natural bowl shape, I made bowls. Many craft items came to me quite naturally, like goblets, lidded containers, salt and pepper shakers, pepper grinders, etc.

By the early 1990s I had a girlfriend who made glass beads and was quite successful, so I started making beads, and, quite by accident, buttons which were a little hard to make in any quantity.

At about the same time, I began doing wood-turning trade shows. I met a person who was an importer of Indonesian carving and other products of Bali. He knew of some old ivory carvers who were unemployed and looking for work. I soon began to send the raw ivory nut material to Bali about 2004. Now we have three families carving full time on just this nut.

It was at a carving show in California that someone came to my table to ask if I had any buttons.  I had a few left from a few years earlier and sold them. The next year at the same show, two people came by to ask if I had any more buttons and even brought out the two buttons I had sold the year before. In fact, I did have a few more. They said that their local button club would be interested in purchasing 100 buttons. So on the way home from that show, it came to me how to make buttons in a more productive way.

Since May, 2006, I have been making buttons and learning about the button world and how to make buttons with unusual embellishments. Of all the shows I have attended over the years, it is nice to be around a group of people who already know what the vegetable ivory material is.

Since the Micronesian variety of seed produces the largest nut of any vegetable ivory palm in the world, I can make a large button upwards of 2.5 inches in diameter. I cut one nut in half so I get two buttons out of one nut. I really approach my buttons in a matter-of-fact way—how the raw shape is presented to me on the lathe. I am still learning about what shapes are of particular interest to button collectors. Some people like the natural black color and out-of-round shapes, and others like the perfectly round shapes. The embellishment I’m using determines how much of the natural outer seed covering that I leave on. The materials I use to embellish include turquoise, tiger’s eye, carved bone, carved mother-of-pearl, black and white mother-of-pearl, ammonite, abalone shell, paua shell, dichroic glass, jade, and garnet, plus the outer husk of the whole fruit, which vary in texture. Now, on occasion, I still make plain buttons.

My techniques are rather straightforward wood turning devices. However, since I do small work, I have been using some small cutting tools for tiny details. The joy of the creative process comes when I do a button show, and people actually buy my buttons. I work five to six hours a day, six days a week, so it keeps me busy, and I am certainly not bored. The real challenge is to try to determine which embellishment fits the button I’m making. I also go to Tucson for the gem and mineral show in early February to look for new embellishments. Then on to the button shows.


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