Brazilian rosewood, primarily native to Brazil's Atlantic coastal rainforests, thrives predominantly in the eastern Brazilian states of Rio de Janeiro, Minas Gerais, Espirito Santo, Sao Paulo, and Bahia, where it can grow to towering heights exceeding 100 feet (30 meters) and trunk diameters over 3 feet (1 meter). However, extensive logging by the timber industry over the years has significantly diminished its population. This prized timber features a rich chocolate color with reddish or purplish undertones and a distinctive black-marbled grain pattern. When worked, Brazilian rosewood emits a signature rose-like fragrance. Its remarkable physical properties include greater hardness and crushing strength compared to white oak and rock maple.
Brazilian rosewood's most exceptional attribute lies in its legendary acoustic qualities, boasting rich, warm tones, unmatched sustain, and clarity. Many professionals consider it the finest tonewood in existence, making it a preferred choice for renowned instrument makers. Iconic instruments like the Martin Dreadnought, Fender Stratocaster, Gibson Les Paul, and Steinway pianos have been crafted from Brazilian rosewood. Beyond its role in instrument making, Brazilian rosewood has been harvested for its essential oils, notably used in the perfume trade, including its inclusion in the 1921 launch of Chanel No. 5, one of the world's first designer fragrances.
Portugal's Colonial Past
Brazilian rosewood's journey begins in the lush, tropical landscapes of Brazil, where it thrived for centuries. The timber's rich, oily heartwood made it a prized resource for various applications, including high-quality furniture, decorative veneers, and, of course, musical instruments. When European explorers first set foot on South American soil in the early 16th century, they were captivated by the beauty and utility of Brazilian rosewood.
Portugal, one of the foremost colonial powers of the era, recognized the immense value of this precious timber. They initiated widespread deforestation and exploitation of Brazilian rosewood forests to meet the growing demand. Logging was driven not only by the desire for timber but also by the establishment of plantations, farms, and support for mining operations. This exploitation of resources continued for over three centuries, reaching its zenith in the 20th century.
As a result of this relentless deforestation, Brazilian rosewood's habitat diminished dramatically, and today, it occupies just a mere 5 percent of its former range. While some small pockets of Brazilian rosewood forests have found protection in national parks and reserves, the export of rosewood logs was banned in Brazil over three decades ago. In 1992, Brazilian rosewood earned a place on Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), a treaty aimed at safeguarding endangered species. This inclusion prohibited the international trade of Brazilian rosewood among nations that had signed the treaty.
Despite these protective measures, illegal logging and smuggling of Brazilian rosewood persist, posing an ongoing threat to this precious resource. Of all the species protected under CITES, rosewood remains the most trafficked commodity, surpassing even elephant ivory.
Brazilian rosewood is renowned for its exceptional acoustic properties, producing a warm, rich, and highly resonant sound that is unequalled by many other tonewoods. When used for the back and sides of a guitar, Brazilian rosewood imparts a deep and complex tonal character. The low end is notably pronounced, offering a lush and resonant bass response that adds depth and warmth to the music. The midrange is rich and full-bodied, providing clarity and presence to each note, making it ideal for fingerstyle playing. Furthermore, Brazilian rosewood exhibits exquisite sustain, allowing notes to ring out with remarkable clarity and duration. This sustain, combined with its pronounced overtones, creates a tonal palette that is both expressive and emotive, and truly inspiring to players.
Brazilian Rosewood guitar by luthier GR Bear
Beyond its remarkable sonic qualities, Brazilian rosewood is celebrated for its ability to age beautifully. As these guitars mature and are played over time, their tonal characteristics continue to evolve, becoming even more resonant and complex. This aging process is highly desirable among musicians and collectors, further enhancing the allure of Brazilian rosewood guitars. In sum, the tone of Brazilian rosewood guitars is a harmonious blend of depth, warmth, clarity, and sustain, making them instruments of choice for those who seek the pinnacle of acoustic guitar craftsmanship and musical expression.
C.F. Martin and European Luthiers
The story of Brazilian rosewood's musical legacy takes a pivotal turn with the contributions of C.F. Martin, a legendary figure in the world of guitar making. C.F. Martin, born Christian Frederick Martin in Germany, ventured to the United States in the mid-19th century, leaving behind the restrictive guilds of Europe. Along with him, he brought the guitar-making techniques and ideas that were evolving in Europe.
At this time, European guitar makers used a variety of woods, including cedar, ebony, maple, walnut, and cypress, alongside rosewood. Some of these woods were locally sourced, while others were imported through colonial trade networks. Brazilian rosewood, available through Portuguese trade routes, began to make its mark in the guitar-making world. Initially, it was chosen more for its visual appeal than its acoustic qualities.
Christian Frederick Martin, like other early American guitar makers, experimented with local woods but ultimately developed a preference for Brazilian rosewood. Its availability through trade and transport made it a viable choice, even in the United States. This led to Brazilian rosewood becoming the standard material for the backs, sides, and fretboards of Martin guitars, a tradition that endured for over a century.
The Golden Era of Guitars
The era spanning the 1930s and 1940s is often referred to as the "Golden Era" of guitar making. During this period, Brazilian rosewood played a pivotal role in the creation of some of the world's finest acoustic guitars. While mahogany and koa were also used for guitar construction, Brazilian rosewood stood out for its exceptional tonal qualities.
Notable models like the Martin D-28 and others featured Brazilian rosewood back and sides. This era is celebrated for the production of a relatively small number of high-quality guitars, cherished by musicians and collectors alike. Later, electric guitar builders including Gibson and Fender would discover the beauty and tonal richness of Brazilian Rosewood, using it extensively on the fretboards or iconic electric guitars such as the Les Paul and Stratocaster.
Decline of Brazilian Rosewood
The early part of the 20th century witnessed Brazilian rosewood's abundant supply, but this was largely due to the extensive harvesting of coastal forests. By the late 1960s, Brazil imposed an embargo on the export of Brazilian rosewood logs, leading to a decline in supply. Guitar manufacturers, including Martin, shifted their focus to other rosewood species like East Indian and Madagascar rosewoods. These alternatives offered ease of availability and didn't suffer from the overharvesting and mismanagement that plagued Brazilian rosewood.
In the 1960’s Brazil placed an embargo on Brazilian rosewood logs that Martin required. Their purpose was to attract industry to Brazil by demanding that the logs be sawn in Brazilian mills. In addition to the embargo, there was another basic problem in acquiring Brazilian rosewood. The available supply of large rosewood trees, in which the processed wood is wide enough for two-piece Dreadnought backs, was depleted. The shortage of wide pieces led to the introduction of the Martin D-35 with a 3-piece back, in 1965. Martin ceased using Brazilian rosewood in standard production for complete sets of back and sides in 1969, with most builders switching to Indian Rosewood in the late-60's for similar reasons. Today, very few new Brazilian rosewood guitars are produced due to its rarity and strict trade regulations. However, vintage Brazilian rosewood guitars remain highly coveted among musicians and collectors.
CITES and the Guitar Industry
In 2016, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) took a significant step to combat illegal logging and wildlife trafficking by protecting the entire Dalbergia genus under Appendix II. While this move aimed to enhance enforcement of trade and forestry laws, it also had a substantial impact on the guitar industry.
Under the new rules, all international trade, imports, and exports of rosewood guitars, or guitars containing any rosewood components, required CITES permits. This posed significant challenges for guitar makers, players, and dealers. While language on "non-commercial personal use" aimed to protect traveling musicians from confiscation of their instruments, confusion persisted.
Prominent guitar manufacturers like Taylor and Martin voiced concerns about the regulations, leading CITES to adjust some requirements, particularly for finished instruments. Despite the initial challenges, the episode raised awareness about the conservation of endangered timber species among guitar enthusiasts.
The Future of Brazilian Rosewood
The future of Brazilian rosewood remains uncertain. Restoration efforts are underway to rejuvenate the Atlantic forest, and Brazilian rosewood can play a role in these endeavors. However, the growth and maturation of rosewood trees take decades, and it remains to be seen whether the wood from these new trees will match the appeal of old-growth Brazilian rosewood.
Despite the challenges and restrictions, there is still a market for vintage Brazilian rosewood guitars, and some guitar builders have access to dwindling existing supplies purchased before the CITES restrictions were imposed. As long as guitars comply with relevant trade regulations and provenance certificates, Brazilian rosewood can still find its way into the hands of musicians and collectors.
Brazilian rosewood's illustrious history in the world of guitars is intertwined with the rise of C.F. Martin, the legacy of Spanish luthiers, and the impacts of Portuguese colonial exploitation. While its scarcity and trade restrictions have reshaped the industry, Brazilian rosewood's timeless allure continues to captivate those who cherish its exceptional tonal qualities. Its enduring legacy serves as a testament to the harmonious union of craftsmanship and nature in the world of music.
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