“That trip to Madagascar just about killed me,” recalls Tom Bedell with a laugh. “The jungle was so hot and humid, and we were climbing up these steep hills in the heat.”
Two years ago, the Oregon guitar maker visited the African island nation to see how rosewood trees there were faring. Bedell has long focused on environmental questions raised by guitar makers’ use of rosewood, and reports suggested that political turmoil in Madagascar was increasing illegal logging.
Bedell was deeply troubled by what he discovered. “We could not find one single mature rosewood tree—only seedlings,” he says. “But we did see big piles of rosewood logs hidden in the jungle.”
Indeed, a 2016 analysis by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime found that rosewood is the world’s most illegally trafficked wild product, with huge demand from the Chinese furniture industry and other users driving deforestation in vulnerable countries.
That’s why Bedell—who runs the eco-conscious Bedell Guitars—strongly supports new rules under CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species), aimed at reining in logging’s threats to rosewood. “The guitar industry’s impact on our tropical forests has been minimal,” Bedell says. “But to control the trade in wood for furniture, they had to list it all. If we want to have rosewood available for generations to come, this is really important.”
Rules and Regulations
The new rosewood regulations—which took effect January 2, 2017—have also sparked questions and concerns among many makers and musicians. Some guitar makers say they’ve adapted relatively easily. But others report delays in getting export permits, contradictory advice from U.S. officials, and major challenges in working with foreign governments.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, for its part, says that export permit applications are being processed in about three weeks on average. The agency, which is primarily responsible for implementing the new rosewood rules, reported receiving about 100 permit applications by the last week of February. It has not denied any applications under the new rules to date, according to a spokeswoman.
If you don’t already know all the materials used in creating your instrument, now is the time to find out.
The new CITES Appendix II listing applies to the entire genus Dalbergia, which encompasses more than 250 species of rosewood. The only exception is Brazilian rosewood (Dalbergia nigra), which continues to be covered under tougher rules that almost entirely prohibit trade. Many rosewood species had already been protected under CITES Appendix III, which required cross-border shipments of logs, sawn wood, and veneer sheets to be authorized by a document certifying origins.
But the new listing includes finished products like guitars and other instruments, even if they contain small amounts of wood in features like tuning pegs. Export permits are now required when such guitars are sold across national borders.
The Good News for Musicians
Luckily for guitarists, the new CITES listing includes an annotation exempting instruments brought across international boundaries for noncommercial purposes—as long as they contain less than 10 kilograms (or about 22 pounds) of the newly protected rosewood species. “If I’m Bob Dylan going to a gig in Belgium, even though it’s a paid concert, it’s still considered a noncommercial activity,” explains Rob Garner of ForestBased Solutions, an environmental consulting company. “But if I sell that guitar over there or buy one, I must have a CITES permit for that guitar now.”
According to the League of American Orchestras’ Heather Noonan, who attended last fall’s CITES conference in South Africa where the new rules were adopted, the U.S. has taken a generous interpretation of the personal-use annotation. Under this approach, the 10-kilogram limit applies not to the instrument’s total weight but to the amount of rosewood in it.
Musicians should understand, however, that other countries might take different interpretations—or have other rules. And if you’re traveling with a valuable guitar, be ready to prove that it’s yours and that you brought it into the country. “The very safest course of action is to contact the local authority and ask what is required,” Noonan says.
If you don’t already know all the materials used in creating your instrument, now is the time to find out. “You should get a third-party evaluation,” Noonan says. “Ideally, you would document when it was made, who it was made by, and what it is made out of.”
Noonan’s organization and other groups are urging CITES to streamline permit requirements for musicians and make sure all countries enforce them the same way. But any changes could take years. Still, neither the American Orchestra League nor the National Association of Music Merchants has any reports of musicians encountering problems caused by the new rules. “We usually hear about issues like that,” Noonan says.
Headaches for Guitar Makers
Guitar makers have definitely hit some speed bumps in dealing with the new CITES regulations. And they say that these rules could result in musicians paying more for guitars or having more trouble buying rosewood instruments. “I’d say that the impact has been heavy,” says Nick Colesanti of Martin Guitars. “It’s time- and resource-intensive and in some respects pretty expensive to comply with the regulations. But we think it’s really important, and we’re doing all we need to comply.
CITES permits themselves aren’t that pricey for a larger company. For about $200, a so-called “master file” permit from the U.S. government allows a maker to ship hundreds of guitars overseas. The main expenses for Martin, Colesanti says, are the extra manpower and information technology upgrades needed to complete permits and comply with the chain-of-custody requirements for rosewood.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials have been extraordinarily helpful, Colesanti says. But he notes that the European Union complicated the situation by also requiring an import permit for rosewood products—something not mandated by CITES. Still, despite the changes, Martin supports the new listing. “We’re a 184-year-old company. We’re all about sustainability,” Colesanti says. “No regulation is perfect, and this one may be tweaked over time. But we believe in the general principle. We want these trees and this wood to be around for a long time.”
Other makers report very challenging experiences. Bob Taylor, co-founder of Taylor Guitars, says the new rules have had many impacts on his company, which exports tens of thousands of guitars a year. As of mid-February, Taylor could not obtain rosewood from India or transfer rosewood between its factory in California and its Mexican facility. “We’ve stopped production on some rosewood models,” Taylor explains. “And we have an entire team working with all the countries where we sell guitars in order to work out the details of exporting and importing.”
U.S. officials are trying to be helpful, Taylor says. But his company has experienced challenges at ports when exporting. Those are being overcome as Taylor works with Fish and Wildlife and other agencies. “It’s all new to everyone, even them,” Taylor says.
Taylor supports protecting rosewood under CITES, but he says the new rules go too far. “I do not support the rule of controlling finished products. Not at all,” he says. “Once the wood itself has passed CITES control on exportation and importation that should be the end of the control.”
Some smaller companies also report major problems. Texas-based Collings Guitars does a modest international business and has a lot of prior experience working with Fish and Wildlife. But as of mid-February, Collings had still not managed to get U.S. officials to clear a single permit to export under the new rosewood rules, according to general manager Steve McCreary.
The company says it received contradictory information about the new requirements from Fish and Wildlife and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which is involved in port inspections of instruments featuring shells from protected species. “It’s been really difficult to get everyone on the same page — the carriers, the customers, Fish and Wildlife, and the USDA in some cases,” McCreary says. “We’re a small company, and this is impacting our monthly revenue.”
If you’re traveling with a valuable guitar, be ready to prove that it’s yours and that you brought it into the country.
McCreary attributes the problems to the learning curve that accompanies new regulations. “It will get worked out like it did with the shell rules,” he says, referring to Federal Wildlife legislation that impacted the materials
commonly used in guitar inlays. “But in the meantime we’re piling up guitars over here, while other countries figure out how to receive instruments made with rosewood.”
Will such difficulties raise guitar prices? Some makers say they’re already charging customers for permit fees and time spent on paperwork. Others don’t yet pass along costs but may do so in the future. Minneapolis luthier Charlie Hoffman, on the other hand, says he likely won’t bother. “Probably not—compared to the cost of the guitar, the costs of record keeping just aren’t that high,” Hoffman says.
A Sense of Uncertainty
One major unknown is what the rules will do to the price of rosewood itself, according to Chris Herrod of Luthiers Mercantile International (LMI), a California-based company that supplies wood to instrument makers. “We assume prices will be impacted by this, but we’re not sure exactly how,” he says.
Wood dealers in India, a major rosewood supplier, might increase prices to cover losses. “Or they may want to stay competitive since people might move to alternative woods,” Herrod says.
Dozens of luthiers have contacted LMI about the new rules, and the company is focused on providing information needed to sell rosewood instruments abroad. “We need to be able to trace any piece of wood to the exact shipment that it came on,” Herrod says. “That’s very detailed but we’ve done it. The paper trail that you get from our company will be exceptional.”
Despite the new challenges, Herrod isn’t sure you’ll see a move toward alternative woods. “Rosewood has been a really reliable commodity, whereas a lot of replacements haven’t been,” he says. “When it comes to alternatives, there’s much more likelihood of supply chains being erratic in terms of quality and supply.”
Another obvious obstacle to alternative woods is musicians’ strong preference for rosewood, says luthier Matt Larrivée. Larrivée Guitars, now based in California, ships hundreds of rosewood-containing instruments abroad every year. The 50-year-old company has decades of experience with other CITES permits, but Larrivée says preparing for the new rules was still extremely difficult.
He faults the CITES system for giving instrument makers just three months between adoption of the new listing and its January implementation. The challenges are now mostly resolved, he says, and the company was able to obtain a master-file rosewood permit in about six weeks.
Yet the new rules have also increased Larrivée’s determination to experiment with rosewood alternatives—something he began doing years ago after seeing other guitar companies run afoul of the Lacey Act, a U.S. law that prohibits trafficking in illegally obtained wood. “We’ve built with maybe 15 or 20 different woods in quantity since those issues happened,” he says. “We’ve been trying to get guitar buyers comfortable with woods other than rosewood and mahogany.”
But some alternative tonewoods have been a tough sell. Guitars made with Indian silver oak offer a prime example. “They are uniformly great sounding,” Larrivée says. “But because it’s a lighter-colored wood, the guitars don’t enjoy the same success that a guitar made with rosewood does.”
Until consumer taste changes, Larrivée will continue working with rosewood—and he acknowledges the need for protections. Three years ago, a customer asked Larrivée to build a guitar from Brazilian rosewood that he promised to supply himself. “So we got this package of wood from Brazil,” Larrivée recalls. “There was no CITES permit, and the box was labeled ‘model airplane parts.’”
Larrivée ordered employees not to open the box. And then he called federal officials. “It was hard, but we had to rat out our own customer to Fish and Wildlife,” he says. “They came out and inspected the wood and called the customer. There ultimately were no charges, but as a maker, that was really tough.”
That experience helps explain why Larrivée ultimately supports the new rosewood rule. “As much as it is an absolute pain in the ass—there’s just no polite way to put it—it is something that is probably necessary,” he says. “But they certainly could have done a better job of rolling it out.”
This article originally appeared in the August 2017 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.