Sustainable tonewood and the Gibson Guitar Raid

Recently, in August 2011, Gibson Guitar Company was searched by agents from the U.S. Department of Justice for possession of illegal wood.  Guitars are made with woods from all over the world, and many of the most prized woods for tone and sound quality are tropical species on the IUCN Red List of Threatened SpeciesFor example, Big-Leaf Mahogany (Swietenia sp.) from South America, and Brazilian or Honduran rosewood (Dalbergia nigra, D. stevensonii) are used for guitar soundboards and bodies.  In fact, the tight-ringed old growth Brazilian rosewood used to make Martin guitars in the early 1920’s is considered to be one reason these guitars sounded so famously good.  This raid is not the first confiscation of wood from Gibson Guitars.  In 2009, the company was raided for illegal wood from Madagascar, resulting in the court case “United States of America v. Ebony Wood in Various Forms.”  Gibson’s supplier of the questionable wood (Luthiers Mercantile) claimed that Gibson has been unfairly targeted for having questionable wood that has been supplied to many different instrument makers.

Wood can be acquired from companies that are certified to practice sustainable harvesting on tree plantations, rather than acquiring the wood from foresters who may poach on protected lands, clear-cut old growth forests, or commit other unsustainable or even illegal practices.  Indeed, Gibson Guitar Company only procures wood approved by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), a non-governmental organization that certifies wood as socially and environmentally sound.  However, enforcement and investigation of compliance with FSC standards has a limit, and the guarantee of the FSC is valuable and helpful, but certainly more questionable than getting wood from your next-door neighbor.  For opinions about why FSC-certified wood is still be questionable in this case, read here and here.

The questionable sustainability in high-quality tonewoods (i.e., woods used to make musical instruments) is an issue for almost all musical instrument makers, not just guitar makers.  The dense, dark wood of ebony (Diospyros celebica, D. crassiflora, and D. ebenum) from Indonesia, India, and west Africa is used for fingerboards, pegs, and bows in violin-family and other stringed instruments.  Many luthiers and musicians consider the rare Snakewood (Piratinera guianensis) the best material for a violin bow, and Pernambuco (Caesalpinia echinata) second best for this purpose.  African blackwood (Dalbergia melanoxylon) is used for wooden flutes and bagpipes.  Instrument makers want to make instruments with the best sound quality, and, for many of these wood trades, musical instruments are not the biggest demand on the market for rare imported wood.  Many of these woods are prized in furniture and art, or are the most accessible for even rudimentary purposes in tropical, developing countries with extensive forests.  Kudos to the companies that use socially and environmentally sustainable woods using the FSC.  Even better are those that use mostly high quality native woods instead, such as Seagull Guitars.  Although Gibson could be wrongly charged for a problem that is pervasive throughout the musical instrument market, the potential illegal wood found at the Gibson Guitar Company that was FSC certified points to the larger issue of the difficulty of accountability when enforcing sustainability in a global market.


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