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more... GuitarsAcoustic SoundboardPremier BlogAcousticOctober 2014

Acoustic Soundboard: Vintage Instruments—An Endangered Species?


The 1901 Martin 0-34 shown here reveals how much ivory was used on that company’s higher models, as not only are the tuning pegs and bridge made of ivory, but all the binding as well. In contrast, the ivory saddle and nut show the maximum amount of ivory found on any Martin guitar made after 1920 and weigh less than 1/5 of an ounce. But that’s still enough to make the instrument illegal to sell in some U.S. jurisdictions, if recently enacted laws are fully enforced. Fortunately, the original nut and saddle can be removed and replaced with domestic cattle bone with no loss to the
guitar’s sound or playability. Photos by Grant Groberg.

But the “long ago” case for ivory took on a hollow ring by 2013 when headline news reported a dramatic rise in ivory poaching in Africa, resulting in the horrific slaughter of elephants. Illegally downed trees and stripped landscapes are one thing, but photos of slaughtered animals provoke a heightened level of outrage. Despite the fact that most poached ivory was headed for countries in Asia where it’s far more highly prized, suddenly the sale of anything made with ivory, no matter how old, was seen as related to poaching elephants. Protecting live elephants was no longer enough, and there was a growing sentiment that to squash the demand for poached tusks, the sale of any ivory needed to be banned.

Thus began a round-robin of laws with draconian penalties for ivory commerce, both on the national and state levels. The policy regarding the sale of items made with endangered species had been that items over 100 years old were certified “antiques” and therefore immune from sale restrictions. But because of the highly emotional ivory situation and new legislation, pieces 1,000 years old will soon be illegal to sell in the state of New Jersey. This means a Hackensack folkie could still inherit and play her great-grandmother’s 1890s mandolin with original ivory bindings and tortoiseshell pickguard, but selling it could land her in serious trouble. It’s almost like a “reverse grandfather clause” that turns the market for antique instruments on its head.

New rules and regulations that impact the sale and shipment of musical instruments containing materials like ivory are perhaps one of the more troubling examples of a disconnect between a newly defined illegality and any hope of enforcing it fairly. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service—which is in charge of enforcing these new restrictions regarding the sale of items containing material from endangered species—until recently hadn’t a clue how many older violin bows had ivory tips, for instance, or how many guitars made before the 1970s had ivory nuts and saddles. To complicate matters even more, ivory used as a structural element—such as a bridge saddle—can be very difficult to differentiate from bone, or from a synthetic material designed to look like ivory.

There’s some small comfort in noting that these new laws are focused on the sale of ivory, or to restrict traveling with it across international borders. There’s no indication that playing a 1955 Martin 000-28 at an open mic will land you in jail or that fiddling with an ivory-tipped bow will bring jackboots stomping through square dancers to confront the band. Yet there’s no denying that the recent changes in the government’s attitude regarding both plant and animal products used to manufacture musical instruments has many musicians wondering when the next endangered shoe will drop.

Mother-of-pearl fretboard dots, for instance, are still legal. But since they are an animal product, technically they will soon need a permit from the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service if shipped across the border. And, like most permits, it will require a fee. (Even more daunting: South American mahogany, a wood used on a majority of acoustic guitars made in North America, could be on the list of restricted woods in the future.)

Many of these regulations are still in flux and not specifically cited here (the exception is the recently signed law in New Jersey focusing on ivory). Some of these rules may change in the future, but as any stockbroker will attest, markets dislike uncertainty and the market for used and vintage musical instruments is no exception. Collectors will be the first to shy away from guitars that may be difficult to sell locally, let alone on the world market, but even musicians will probably wonder if they want to bother filling out permit applications to play a gig in Toronto.

Instrument manufacturers have already responded: Taylor has many new guitar models with no inlays made of shell (an animal product) and Paul Reed Smith has eliminated the use of any questionable species from most of its electric guitar production. And for a musician about to embark on a world tour, new instruments made with synthetic materials that signal being man-made at first glance may have new appeal.