Rosewood has been an integral part of musical instrument manufacturing for as long as we can remember. Fretboards and guitar bodies are two of the most dominant uses these days, but that may soon change.
It seems the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) decided in 2016 that rosewood is teetering on the brink of extinction. It doesn't matter that it really isn't teetering on the brink, or isn't really anywhere close to the edge. CITES decided that commerce in nearly all species of rosewood should be regulated, and the US government signed onto the CITES treaty in January 2017. Suddenly, one of the most commonly used woods in guitar manufacturing became heavily regulated. Importing rosewood from India (one of the largest producers of rosewood) now requires all sorts of expensive paperwork and certifications that the US Fish and Wildlife Service (our regulating agency) wasn't prepared to receive or understand. This is no reflection on the government fish and wildlife folks, they were caught as unaware as the rest of us, and they are doing their best to figure it out as they go.
The CITES committee that oversees some of the regulations has decided that the regs are too onerous, and should be amended to some degree. While that sounds great, the committee cannot present the revised regs to the full convention until some time in 2019. Even if the revised regulations are adopted, the rosewood business will still have to deal with expensive documentation and reporting.
CITES regulations don't really do anything to save rosewood, they just make the process much more expensive for those who buy and sell rosewood.
So, how did we get to this point?
Years ago, Brazilian rosewood was the rosewood of choice for guitars. Overharvesting depleted the Amazon rainforests and the rosewood supply, so the music industry moved to using Indian rosewood. The nation of India has a very advanced sustainability program, and as trees are harvested, more trees are planted. The chance of running out of Indian rosewood is slim to none. Indonesia, however, is a different story. Furniture manufacturers in Indonesia are going through their rosewood supply at an alarming rate, so to stem that activity, CITES made the exporting of rosewood, even in a finished state, as difficult as they could.
How does this impact the average American musician?
If you have an instrument that has rosewood parts, and the instrument was made before 2017, you will have to get a re-export certificate to carry or ship it across international borders. Want to take your 2006 acoustic on your vacation in Toronto or Cancun? Go to this link and apply for a certificate. If you buy an instrument from another country, and it has rosewood, part of the purchase price will include the cost of a CITES certificate.
What are manufacturers doing about this debacle?
It depends on the manufacturer. Some are just waiting it out, hoping their current stockpile of rosewood will last until the regulators come to their senses. Other are actively looking for replacement species. Amahi ukuleles is experimenting with black walnut as a substitute wood, and G&L Guitars is investigating several options to use instead of rosewood. Backstage recently received a G&L ASAT Custom with a fingerboard made from Chechen, and central American hardwood with is indeed very hard, and fine-grained. It also has a beautiful blend of colors, which makes it a stunning fingerboard material.
Saving the planet is a good idea, but declaring species that are plentiful to be endangered is bad business. Eventually, we think the governments of the world, prompted by the rosewood-producers of the world, will have another look at the way sustainability is already being implemented. This will result in a more reasonable approach to rosewood regulations, and we'll eventually get back to some semblance of normalcy in regard to the hundreds of species of rosewood.
Until then, we're looking forward to some exciting new woods to be used in instrument manufacture. Based on what we've seen from Amahi's offerings and G&L's research, we've got some great instruments in our future.
Allen McBroom, Backstage Music