At New Scientist Live, Barbara Kolator B.Sc. M.Sc. FGA DGA EG met with Dr. Leon Barron, senior lecturer in Forensic Science at Kings' College London about some innovative fingerprinting technology with implications for gemmologists, antique dealers, collectors and wildlife conservationists worldwide.
As you may have recently seen in the news, the UK Government intends to ban the sale of all ivory (with some exceptions).
The team, including Dr. Barron from Kings' College, Mark Moseley who works with the Metropolitan Police, and David Cowdrey from IFAW (International Fund for Animal Welfare), has been instrumental in this ban with the development of a technique for the recovery of human fingerprints from ivory.
This kind of testing was identified as a priority in 2014 by Law Enforcement Agencies and the team furthered galvanised by a request from Mark's children that he should do something about elephant poaching. Since then the children have had the opportunity to demonstrate the kit themselves. It was also shown that at the US Embassy and IFAW currently fund kits to any country requesting them. So far at least 60 kits have been sent to 15 countries across Europe and Africa.
Fingerprint testing kit. Image by Leon Barron.
How does it work and who is it for?
The technology is very simple. Normal fingerprints cannot be lifted from ivory, its odontogenic pores soak them up within a day or two. With this chemically tailored and finer magnetic powder, less fingerprint sweat material is needed and the powder can adhere to residues from 28 days previously, although they are still at their best quality within the first seven days.
The powder can be coloured for use on dark materials such as rhino horn. Jewellery made with rhino horn is now beginning to appear on the market. The kit has also been tested successfully on tiger claws, hippopotamus teeth, sperm whale teeth and even bird's eggs.
The kit costs £100 and comes in a robust lightweight field case suitable for use in remote or hostile range areas. Everything needed to carry out the forensic test is inside and the powder itself is relatively inexpensive.
Demonstrating fingerprinting kit. Image by Leon Barron.
The kits have been used successfully by the Kenyan Wildlife Service. Their use has already led to 15 arrests including those of five police officers. Border officials have also performed tests at airports when ivory has been found.
The kits have been validated to UK Home Office guidelines and excellent results have been obtained for individual identifications using in-service fingerprint databases.
28-day old fingerprint on ivory enhanced with reduced scale powder. Photo by Barbara Kolator.
In the absence of databases in several countries, Barron explained, fingerprints can also be used for comparison to those of known suspects to see if they are connected or can be excluded from the investigation. This helps with policing and enforcement even at a basic level.
The aim now is to gather large amounts of data to enable these databases to be built from the ground up. Fingerprint technology was chosen because it is simpler to use, but now even DNA can be extracted at a later date if required.
Why is this important?
The trade in illicit ivory is increasing and the UK is a major trafficking centre, with ivory from Africa going to Asia, passing through British ports and airports. In 2007 there were 11 seizures of ivory, in 2015 there were 345 including one of 100kgs at Heathrow Airport. This was the largest seizure in the UK. The unworked ivory and bangles were chopped up to fit into suitcases and were en route from Angola to Germany where they were going to be carved.
Leon Barron at New Scientist Live. Image by Leon Barron.
So how will this novel technology impact gemmology and the antique trade? How will the industry respond? Is it worth remembering that the illicit trade in endangered species not only damages the planet but also involves organised crime terrorism on a global scale?
Is there a way of protecting and controlling endangered species, conserving ancient ivory works of art while at the same time making the trade of ivory so unprofitable and undesirable that it goes out of fashion? Perhaps this is a good time for some reasoned debate?
For more developments watch this space.
Electron micrograph of a reduced-size magnetic particle. Image by Leon Barron.
Interested in finding out more about gemmology? Sign-up to one of Gem-A's courses or workshops.
If you would like to subscribe to Gems&Jewellery and The Journal of Gemmology please visit Membership.
Cover image Examples of fingerprints enhanced on a full tusk, the top image complete with annotations. All images by Leon Barron unless otherwise stated.
In his third Gemstone Conversations column for Gems&Jewellery, Jewellery Historian and Valuer John Benjamin FGA DGA FIRV explores the fascinating history of turquoise and its use in jewellery design from the Shahs of Persia to the Art Deco design movement.
If you're lucky enough to be born in January, vibrant garnet is your birthstone. A rainbow jewel of the gem world, garnet displays the greatest variety of colour of any mineral and is very often untreated, making it a rarity in the gem world.
Iridescence has to be one of the most mesmerising and magical optical effects seen in gemstones. But have you ever wondered how it occurs? Gem-A's Collection Curator Barbara Kolator FGA DGA shines a light on this fascinating optical effect and tells us about the gems that are most likely to display it.
Gem-A Gemmology Tutor Pat Daly FGA DGA offers us a glimpse at some of the more unusual items in Gem-A's Gemstones and Minerals Collection.
Are you looking for the perfect festive gift for a December baby? Gem-A tutor Lily Faber FGA DGA EG considers tanzanite – one of three birthstones for December – and shares how this relatively new gemstone compares to its purple and blue-hued rivals.
Beautiful blue turquoise is one of three birthstones for the month of December (in addition to zircon and tanzanite). It is enriched with real cultural significance that can be traced back thousands of years. Here, we explore the blue shades of turquoise and explain what makes this gemstone so special...
Chatoyancy is the gemmological name given to the curious optical effect in which a band of light is reflected in cabochon-cut gemstones, creating an appearance similar to light bouncing off a cat's eye. Gem-A's Collection Curator, Barbara Kolator FGA DGA explains chatoyancy and highlights some of the many gems in which it can occur.
Jade has long been revered by gem lovers internationally, but nowhere more so than in China. But what is it that makes this gemstone so special? Gem-A's Assistant Gemmology Tutor Dr Juliette Hibou FGA gives us an overview of jade, how to identify it and its significance in Chinese culture.
The Gem-A Conference is always the highlight of our gemmological calendar! If you didn’t manage to make it, we’ve put together a few of the highlights from this year’s event to fill you in on what you missed, and whet your appetite for Gem-A Conference 2020!