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Photo by Grant Groberg.
We all know the usual reasons used and vintage guitar prices fluctuate: The overall economy obviously has a huge impact, as do new and different musical trends or buyers assigning more importance to changed tuners or refinishing. Then there’s the chance that the latest hot artist chooses to tour with your favorite guitar model, making you wish you’d bought one last year.
But a different trend has begun to impact guitar values in the last few years, and this modifier has nothing to do with music, and, in fact, has nothing to do with what guitars cost or even what condition they’re in. Instead, it’s the materials used when the guitar was manufactured that are coming under new scrutiny.
It all began back in 1975 when CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) first went into effect. This new international agreement—an organized and legislated awareness of endangered plant and animal species—didn’t have much impact on guitars initially. However, in 1992, Brazilian rosewood became a protected species that could only be legally shipped from Brazil if accompanied by a CITES export permit. Brazilian rosewood that was already in other countries, however, was still legal and more Brazilian rosewood continued to be brought to the U.S. as demand for sets of backs and sides, and boards large enough to yield fretboards and bridges, forced prices ever higher. (Most, if not all, American guitar-making companies still offered Brazilian rosewood limited editions or as an expensive option for custom orders.)
Some of these recent shipments of rosewood had paperwork, while many did not. But even when a shipment was fully legal and had the proper documentation, the paperwork rarely followed every piece of wood as it was dispersed to dozens of guitarmakers, from huge companies to one-man shops.
This issue of paperwork rarely came up in the 1990s and even through the first years of the new century, as the focus was on restricting shipments of illegally harvested raw wood with little attention being paid to the finished product. Thin Brazilian rosewood headstock veneers, for instance, continued to adorn the necks of thousands of new acoustic guitars, even though most buyers of those instruments didn’t know or care what wood they were staring at when they changed their strings.
In retrospect, we now can see trouble brewing because while there was lots of Brazilian rosewood stockpiled in North America and Europe, only a small fraction of it had documentation suggesting it was legal. And, since raw wood lacks fingerprints or serial numbers, bridging the gap from a legally imported Brazilian rosewood board to a completed guitar is iffy at best.
The question, “What rosewood is it and when was the tree cut down?” first came up at international borders, but of course customs officials for different countries aren’t always in sync. This meant you might have no trouble flying with your 1998 Brazilian rosewood Collings D2H to Vancouver, British Columbia, but getting that same guitar back across the border into the U.S. might be tricky or even impossible. Even if your Brazilian rosewood Martin HD-28BLE has a clear serial number dating the instrument to 1990 (two years before the CITES ban), customs officials don’t have a Martin serial-number dating list. Do you want to risk selling and shipping it to a bluegrass guitar fan in Germany?
Brazilian rosewood certainly isn’t the only endangered species on the CITES list. Elephants and ivory from their tusks didn’t seem to be a concern for guitar players, or those who bought and sold guitars, because nobody in North America had used much ivory in the last 40 years. In recent decades, there has been only a small amount of trade in ivory—usually for restorations—as everyone was far more comfortable with fossilized mammoth ivory. Those special bridge pins for your Custom Shop Martin, for instance, were easy to enjoy guilt-free since the species that contributed the material had long been extinct. Of course everyone knew there were tens of thousands of old and used guitars out there that had been made with Brazilian rosewood, plus ivory parts such as nuts and saddles, but that was long ago, and the use of ivory seemed to have faded along with proclaiming that you could only get good tone by playing with a tortoiseshell pick.