There is something almost magical about the corozo nut. A tropical seed from South America that has been used for making buttons since long before plastic was invented. We honour this old craftsmanship by always using buttons made of corozo nut in our shirt production to complement our designs.
The history of buttons
Buttons and button-like objects were invented in the Bronze Age and were at that time used as an ornament rather than a fastener. In fact, the reinforced buttonholes as we know them weren’t invented until the mid-13th-century.
In 1918, the US government made an extensive survey of the international button market, which listed buttons made of vegetable ivory, metal, glass, sulk, linen, lead, pearl, rubber, wood, buckhorn, bone, leather, porcelain, tin, zinc and stone. In the 1920s, vegetable ivory accounted for 20% of the US button market and was especially popular for suits and shirts. The materials used for buttons have evolved with technology and plastic as well as composite materials are today the most common materials.
The Corozo nut
Corozo nuts are the seeds of the Tagua palm, which grows in the lowland rainforest all over South America, from northern Peru through Ecuador, Columbia to Panama. The seeds have been used for making buttons since long before plastic was invented, making this an old and special craft. Also known as vegetable ivory, the scratch and water resistant corozo nut is a sustainable alternative with a natural grain that makes each button unique.
The fruit is large, about a full foot in diameter, mid to dark brown and completely covered with hard spikes. Each spiny husk contains on average 5-6 cavities. Vegetable ivory is naturally white and can be dyed in any colour, which often will bring out the natural grain. When dying, the colour will only penetrate the first layer of the material, meaning that when cut, you will be able to see the white layer within.
When the clusters are ripe, they are gathered and dried in the sun for up to two months. Initially, the nut will have a jelly-like substance but after drying, the nut will become hard as stone. The material has also been used for making dices, chess pieces and jewellery.
A sustainable option:
It can take up to 15 years for the Tagua palm to become mature but once it does, it can produce up to 20kg of seeds for up to 100 years and is therefore a renewable resource. Since the seeds can only be collected and used for making buttons when they are ripe, there is no need for deforestation.
So why are more brands not using corozo nut?
As mentioned earlier, the corozo nut accounted for 20% of the buttons in the US. As the much cheaper material plastic was invented, the Tagua trade descended and the main distributors in Germany and Italy struggled.
Corozo still accounts for a small proportion of buttons used worldwide and one of the main barriers are costs. With a price that is up to 10 times higher than plastic, many brands select the cheaper version.
“At Blue de Gênes, we honour craftsmanship and use traditional ways of making clothes and for us, the corozo nut is the natural choice.”
How did the seeds end up in europe?
During the mid-1800s, trade routes between Europe and South America started flourishing. Wooden trade ships carrying many types of South American exports shipped down the pacific coastline, jumping from port to port to collect supplies and passengers. The wooden sailboats that were used for transport were filled with sand in the bottom to add stability while traveling the rough seas. As the ships collected goods, sand would be removed from the ballast to account for the added weight of the goods. However, the sand had a downside...
...Wooden ships would often corrode, rot or get damaged on the hull, causing the sand to absorb water and potentially sink the boat due to added weight. Sailors started exploring other options for ballast, something that wouldn’t absorb water – something that was readily available on the shipping route. That something became the Tagua nuts – they were heavy and plentiful and ideal as ballast when crossing the Atlantic.
One of these boats arrived in Hamburg, where a young German artist took a few nuts and cut them into different shapes. German tradesmen commercialised them and a button industry was born.