Last updated
Cross-section of an unprocessed piece of ebony wood Ebano.jpg
Cross-section of an unprocessed piece of ebony wood

Ebony is a dense black/brown hardwood, coming from several species in the genus Diospyros , which also includes the persimmon tree. A few Diospyros species, such as macassar and mun ebony, are dense enough to sink in water. Ebony is finely textured and has a mirror finish when polished, making it valuable as an ornamental wood. [1] It is often cited as one of the most expensive woods in the world.



The word ebony comes from the Ancient Egyptian hbny, through the Ancient Greek ἔβενος (ébenos), into Latin (ebenus) and Middle English. [2]


Species of ebony include Diospyros ebenum (Ceylon ebony), native to southern India and Sri Lanka; D. crassiflora (Gabon ebony), native to western Africa; D. humilis (Queensland ebony), native to Queensland, the Northern Territory, New Guinea and Timor; and D. celebica (Sulawesi ebony), native to Indonesia and prized for its luxuriant, multi-colored wood grain. Mauritius ebony, D. tessellaria , was largely exploited by the Dutch in the 17th century. Some species in the genus yield an ebony with similar physical properties, but striped rather than the even black of D. ebenum.


Ebony label depicting the pharaoh Den, found in his tomb in Abydos, circa 3000 BC EbonyLabelOfDen-BritishMuseum-August19-08.jpg
Ebony label depicting the pharaoh Den, found in his tomb in Abydos, circa 3000 BC

Ebony has a long history of use, and carved pieces have been found in Ancient Egyptian tombs. [3]

By the end of the 16th century, fine cabinets for the luxury trade were made of ebony in Antwerp. The wood's dense hardness lent itself to refined moldings framing finely detailed pictorial panels with carving in very low relief (bas-relief), usually of allegorical subjects, or with scenes taken from classical or Christian history. Within a short time, such cabinets were also being made in Paris, where their makers became known as ébénistes , which remains the French term for a cabinetmaker.

Elephant carvings from Sri Lanka, probably Gabon ebony (D. crassiflora) Ebony elefant.JPG
Elephant carvings from Sri Lanka, probably Gabon ebony ( D. crassiflora )

Modern uses are largely restricted to small items, such as crucifixes, the main body of some musical instruments such as the clarinet, oboe, or piccolo and musical instrument parts, including black piano, organ, and harpsichord keys; violin, viola, mandolin, guitar, double bass, and cello fingerboards; tailpieces; tuning pegs; chinrests; and bow frogs. Many plectrums, or guitar picks, are made from ebony.

Traditionally, black chess pieces were made from ebony, with boxwood or ivory being used for the white pieces. Modern East Midlands-style lace-making bobbins, also being small, are often made of ebony and look particularly decorative when bound with brass or silver wire. Some expensive handgun grips and rifle fore-end tips are still made of ebony, as are the butts of pool cues.

As a result of unsustainable harvesting, many species yielding ebony are now considered threatened. Most indigenous ebony in Africa in particular has been cut down illegally.

Ebony is often cited as one of the most expensive woods in the world, along with African blackwood, sandalwood, pink ivory and agarwood. [4] [5]


In 2011, the Gibson Guitar company was raided by the US Fish and Wildlife Service for violations of the Lacey Act of 1900, which prohibits the illegal importation of threatened woods and other materials. [6]

An ebony and rosewood expert at the Missouri Botanical Garden calls the Madagascar wood trade the "equivalent of Africa's blood diamonds". [7]

See also

Related Research Articles

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Ebenaceae</span> Family of flowering plants

The Ebenaceae are a family of flowering plants belonging to order Ericales. The family includes ebony and persimmon among about 768 species of trees and shrubs. It is distributed across the tropical and warmer temperate regions of the world. It is most diverse in the rainforests of Malesia, India, tropical Africa and tropical America.

<i>Buxus</i> Genus of flowering plants

Buxus is a genus of about seventy species in the family Buxaceae. Common names include box or boxwood.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Cocobolo</span> Type of wood

Cocobolo is a tropical hardwood of Central American trees belonging to the genus Dalbergia. Only the heartwood of cocobolo is used; it is usually orange or reddish-brown, often with darker irregular traces weaving through the wood. The heartwood changes color after being cut and can be polished to a lustrous, glassy finish; being quite dense, sometimes having a specific gravity of over 1.0, it will sink in water. The sapwood is a creamy yellow, with a sharp boundary between it and the heartwood.

<i>Diospyros</i> Genus of trees and shrubs

Diospyros is a genus of over 700 species of deciduous and evergreen trees and shrubs. The majority are native to the tropics, with only a few species extending into temperate regions. Individual species valued for their hard, heavy, dark timber, are commonly known as ebony trees, while others are valued for their fruit and known as persimmon trees. Some are useful as ornamentals and many are of local ecological importance. Species of this genus are generally dioecious, with separate male and female plants.

<i>Dalbergia melanoxylon</i> Species of plant

Dalbergia melanoxylon in french Granadille d'Afrique is a flowering plant in the family Fabaceae, native to seasonally dry regions of Africa from Senegal east to Eritrea, to southern regions of Tanzania to Mozambique and south to the north-eastern parts of South Africa. The tree is an important timber species in its native areas; it is used in the manufacture of musical instruments, sculptures vinyago in Swahili language and fine furnitures. Populations and genomic resources for genetic biodiversity maintenance in parts of its native range are threatened by overharvesting due to poor or absent conservation planning and by the species' low germination rates.

<i>Diospyros celebica</i> Species of tree

Diospyros celebica is a species of flowering tree in the family Ebenaceae that is endemic to the island of Sulawesi in Indonesia. The common name Makassar ebony is for the main seaport on the island, Makassar.

Ebony is a dense black hardwood.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Rosewood</span> Several dark-hued, dense tropical woods of the genus Dalbergia

Rosewood is any of a number of richly hued hardwoods, often brownish with darker veining, but found in other colours. It is hard, tough, strong, and dense. True rosewoods come from trees of the genus Dalbergia, but other woods are often called rosewood. Rosewood takes a high polish and is used for luxury furniture-making, flooring, musical instruments, and turnery.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Epiphone G-400</span>

The G-400 is an Epiphone solid body electric guitar model produced as a more modestly priced version of the famous Gibson SG. Currently, Epiphone is a subsidiary of Gibson and manufactures the G-400 and other budget models at a lower cost in Asia. Visually and ergonomically, it is almost identical to a 1962 SG.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Pink ivory</span> Species of tree

Pink ivory, also called purple ivory, red ivory, umnini or umgoloti, is an African hardwood used to make a variety of products. The pink ivory tree grows predominantly in Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Northern Botswana and South Africa. The tree is protected and sustainably maintained in South Africa, only felled by very limited permit. The wood is extremely hard, with a density of 990 g/dm3.

<i>Diospyros mespiliformis</i> Species of tree

Diospyros mespiliformis, the jackalberry, is a large dioecious evergreen tree found mostly in the savannas of Africa. Jackals are fond of the fruit, hence the common names. It is a member of the family Ebenaceae, and is related to the true ebony and edible persimmon.

Tonewood refers to specific wood varieties used for woodwind or acoustic stringed instruments. The word implies that certain species exhibit qualities that enhance acoustic properties of the instruments, but other properties of the wood such as esthetics and availability have always been considered in the selection of wood for musical instruments. According to Mottola's Cyclopedic Dictionary of Lutherie Terms, tonewood is:

Wood that is used to make stringed musical instruments. The term is often used to indicate wood species that are suitable for stringed musical instruments and, by exclusion, those that are not. But the list of species generally considered to be tonewoods changes constantly and has changed constantly throughout history.

<i>Diospyros ebenum</i> Species of flowering plant

Diospyros ebenum, or Ceylon ebony , is a species of tree in the genus Diospyros and the family Ebenaceae. The tree produces valuable black wood.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Variegated ebony</span>

Variegated ebony is a group of valuable hardwood varieties, generally obtained from several species in the genus Diospyros, related to genuine ebony. The wood has been used for furniture but also in carpentry, luthiery, and sculpture.

<i>Millettia laurentii</i> Species of legume

Millettia laurentii is a legume tree from Africa and is native to the Republic of Congo, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Cameroon, Gabon and Equatorial Guinea. The species is listed as "endangered" in the IUCN Red List, principally due to the destruction of its habitat and over-exploitation for timber. Wenge, a dark coloured wood, is the product of Millettia laurentii. Other names sometimes used for wenge include faux ebony, dikela, mibotu, bokonge, and awong. The wood's distinctive colour is standardised as a "wenge" colour in many systems.

Guibourtia ehie is an evergreen tree of the genus Guibourtia in the family Fabaceae, also known by the common names amazique, amazoué, hyedua, black hyedua, mozambique, ovangkol and shedua.

Stuart Mossman was an American guitar maker, entertainer and entrepreneur who built 6,000 guitars from 1968 to 1984 that were played by several professional guitarists, including John Denver, Eric Clapton, Albert Lee, Doc Watson, Hank Snow, Cat Stevens and Merle Travis. Mossman's work is seen as the foundation for today's generations of Luthiers who build guitars from fine tone woods.

<i>Diospyros crassiflora</i> Species of tree

Diospyros crassiflora, commonly known as Gabon ebony, African ebony, West African ebony, and Benin ebony is a species of lowland-rainforest tree in the family Ebenaceae that is endemic to Western Africa. It is named after the West African state of Gabon, though it also occurs in Cameroon, Central African Republic, Republic of the Congo, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Equatorial Guinea and Nigeria.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Ancient furniture</span> Furniture in the ancient world

Ancient furniture was made from many different materials, including reeds, wood, stone, metals, straws, and ivory. It could also be decorated in many different ways. Sometimes furniture would be covered with upholstery, upholstery being padding, springs, webbing, and leather. Features which would mark the top of furniture, called finials, were common. To decorate furniture, contrasting pieces would be inserted into depressions in the furniture. This practice is called inlaying.


  1. "Gaboon Ebony". www.wood-database.com/ Lumber Identification (Hardwoods). The Wood Database. Retrieved 2016-12-11.
  2. Beekes, R. S. P.; van Beek, Lucien (2009). Etymological Dictionary of Greek. Leiden: Brill. p. 368. ISBN   978-90-04-17418-4.
  3. D.M., Dixon (19 February 1961). The ebony trade of ancient Egypt. discovery.ucl.ac.uk (Doctoral).
  4. "Top 10 Most Expensive Woods in the World". Salpoente Boutique. 18 November 2016. Retrieved 19 September 2020.
  5. "11 Most Expensive Woods in the World". Ventured. 22 July 2020. Retrieved 19 September 2020.
  6. Fanelli, Damian (2012-08-07). "Gibson Agrees to Pay $350,000 in Penalties, Loses Seized Imported Ebony". guitarworld. Retrieved 2023-01-07.
  7. Felten, Eric (August 26, 2011). "Guitar Frets: Environmental Enforcement Leaves Musicians in Fear". Wall Street Journal. Archived from the original on October 6, 2015.