Black market tonewoods - is rosewood?

Hi, I'm Jorma Winkler, principal and main steward of this ukulele company and sister company Winkler Woods.  Welcome to my first official blog post on our new branded site for Imua Ukulele...

We have been salvaging, harvesting, and supplying Hawaiian tonewoods for many years and sourcing exotic woods from all over the world for the past 10 years.   Add that to the experience I gained from working for my father in his company in Hawaii from the 90's and I guess you could say we have sawdust running through our veins!  I'm proud to say my father was one of the first to supply Bob Taylor, of Taylor Guitars, Hawaiian Koa from the Big Island of Hawaii in the 70's.  

Over the last 10 years I've noticed a decrease of quality woods and an increase in the difficulty to legally trade these woods.   Most of this difficulty is not because of the tonewood market, but rather the global rise in wealth enabling them to finally buy the "finer things in life" of which rosewood has always been at the top of the list for the Chinese.  I'm finding this to be the case with Hawaiian koa as well.  People are willing to pay higher prices for koa which is only decreasing in availability.  Notice I said, "availability" and that is not to be confused with diminishing supplies.  In fact, there are more and more protected koa forests now than there were 10, 50, and even 100 years ago.  

Mainly I wanted to discuss a little bit about what is really going on with this whole CITES and ROSEWOOD thing... in fact, what is CITES?   A look at the CITES site, tells us, "CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) is an international agreement between governments. Its aim is to ensure that international trade in specimens of wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival."

I'll sum a lot of it up here and please don't bash me for not being specific with all the rules and regulations surrounding this.  This is meant to just really give you a basic sense of what it is all about and how it effects us.  Seriously, there is no way I can put in a blog that CITES has on their website... go check it out!  

Basically it is an agreement between most countries to make sure we don't use up and extinct our precious resources!  CITES has three appendices or as I call them, levels: I, II, and III or high, med, and low... or for you Starbucks coffee lovers out there (guilty) we could view these as venti, grande, and short size issues with various species.  Appendix iii is watching a specie (we are concerned but it isn't necessarily threatened yet)... Level ii is restricting the trade (it is getting threatened so we better watch and control all the trade of the specie) and Level 1, appendix i, means any new harvesting is off-limits expect under strict guidelines or not at all.  Please read CITES for the specifics.  This is where Pre-Convention and Post-convention species becomes very important to whether it can be legally traded or not.  For example, Dalbergia nigra, ada Brazilian rosewood, aka "Best Rosewood Tonewood Ever" got listed on appendix i Cites in 1992.  So many people in MI (Music Industry) talk about "pre 92 Jacaranda" or something to that effect to refer to Brazilian rosewood that was harvested before it got listed on CITES in 1992.

So, that brings us to 2017 and the newest listing of EVERY SPECIE OF DALBERGIA (aka ROSEWOOD) on appendix ii.   That is a HUGE deal for music industry because almost every single acoustic instrument out there uses some rosewood for parts.  The fretboard and bridge on a guitar.  The tail piece and keys on a violin, bass, cello, etc.  Even though it sounds like a massive amount, it is only a fraction of what has been consumed by China for the furniture industry.  Many of my colleagues from India who supply rosewood have claimed the rosewood supply has never been in danger from the amount (compared to the rest of the world) consumed for instruments.   Sorry, this is not a wikipedia and there won't be a data and stats to support my opinion... 

Being in the wood industry, I caught wind of this upcoming listing in mid 2016.  So, I decided to import a few years worth of rosewood for our ukuleles so we wouldn't be caught without rosewood for our fingerboards and bridges.  Importing it prior to the change in the law was perfectly legal and it also locked in a price I was comfortable with because who knows what was to happen after the law changed.  

Side note - trying to control the trade of one specie usually increases the trade of other substitute species, like EBONY.   Ebony is actually more rare, more expensive, but easier to get now!  So many factories have switched to using ebony which means the effect of the law to control rosewood will increase the demand of a wood that has been generally known to have a much lesser supply of and more in danger of going extinct.  go figure... Time will see what happens...

So what does this all mean?  Can we still use rosewood?  Well, I would hope so after buying a whole bunch at the end of 2016!  Yes, rosewood is legal to trade, but it just needs a lot, and I mean a LOT of paperwork.   Here is an idea of what is needed...

  1.  Permit with Dept of Ag to import plant products P587
  2. Permit with Fish and Wildlife to import and import
  3. Permit (another) with Dept of Ag to trade in endangered species 
  4. CITES permit to trade in CITES listed specie AND actual COUNT of how many pieces we are allowed to use, export, consume, etc.    

So today we sent our first legal shipment stamped by Fish and Wildlife!   And, oh, shell is also regulated... so any time you have real shell inlay, position markers, etc. it has to be declared to Fish and Wildlife AND a permitting fee paid whether 100 instruments or 1!   It is per shipment.   So it took us hours to do all the paperwork, have an appointment with Fish and Wildlife, then scan and copy all the certified docs at the office, and finally track down the FedEx driver so we can get this off to our customer overseas.   

Is it all worth it?  Well, we definitely all felt a huge sense of pride and accomplishment for successfully getting this shipment out the door.  Worth it?  well, I really think for now it is losing us money until we get the hang of it.  worth it?  well, to be honest, Ebony is looking might nice to use instead of rosewood but of course we have thousands of ukuleles worth of rosewood!  But to answer your question, yes, it is ultimately worth it to protect this specie of wood that is incredibly hard to replace.   There are so few woods that can be a fretboard we should do all we can to be sure we don't ever run out.  And thank goodness ukuleles are small!

Mahalo for your time to read all this and let us know if you want an ukulele.

Imua Ukulele Team - head ring leader - Jorma Winkler