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Ebony is a dense black/brown hardwood, coming from several species in the genus Diospyros , which also contains the persimmons. Unlike most woods, ebony is dense enough to sink in water. It is finely textured and has a mirror finish when polished, making it valuable as an ornamental wood. [1] The word ebony comes from the Ancient Egyptian hbny, through the Ancient Greek ἔβενος (ébenos), into Latin 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; 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.


In Sri Lanka, ebony is a protected species and harvesting and sale of ebony is illegal and punishable by imprisonment.

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. [4]

An ebony and rosewood expert at the Missouri Botanical Garden calls the Madagascar wood trade the "equivalent of Africa's blood diamonds". [5]

See also

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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.

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<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 is a flowering plant in the family Fabaceae, native to seasonally dry regions of Africa from Senegal east to Eritrea 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 and fine furniture. 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> One of several types of wood from tropical trees

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

Millettia laurentii is a legume tree from Africa and 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 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.

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The Land of Punt was an ancient kingdom known from Ancient Egyptian trade records. It produced and exported gold, aromatic resins, blackwood, ebony, ivory and wild animals. It is possible that it corresponds to Opone in Somalia, as later known by the ancient Greeks, while some biblical scholars have identified it with the biblical land of Put or Havilah.

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Illegal logging has been a problem in Madagascar for decades and is perpetuated by extreme poverty and government corruption. Often taking the form of selective logging, the trade has been driven by high international demand for expensive, fine-grained lumber such as rosewood and ebony. Historically, logging and exporting in Madagascar have been regulated by the Malagasy government, although the logging of rare hardwoods was explicitly banned from protected areas in 2000. Since then, government orders and memos have intermittently alternated between permitting and banning exports of precious woods. The most commonly cited reason for permitting exports is to salvage valuable wood from cyclone damage, although this reasoning has come under heavy scrutiny. This oscillating availability of Malagasy rosewood and other precious woods has created a market of rising and falling prices, allowing traders or "timber barons" to stockpile illegally sourced logs during periodic bans and then flood the market when the trade windows open and prices are high. Over 350,000 trees were illegally felled in Madagascar between 2010 and 2015, according to TRAFFIC.

<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.

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

Diospyros tessellaria is a species of tree in the family Ebenaceae.


  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. Fanelli, Damian (2012-08-07). "Gibson Agrees to Pay $350,000 in Penalties, Loses Seized Imported Ebony". guitarworld. Retrieved 2023-01-07.
  5. Felten, Eric (August 26, 2011). "Guitar Frets: Environmental Enforcement Leaves Musicians in Fear". Wall Street Journal. Archived from the original on October 6, 2015.