Due to the protection needed to ensure the survival of some species, trade in some of the materials used for musical instruments and the movement itself of the instruments made with them is now restricted by law. This protection comes in two forms, international treaties and national protective legislation. The most important international treaty is CITES, but there are more.
The law on the import, export and internal trade and movement of items made of endangered species is exceptionally complex. Many countries have different interpretations and may apply different dates for various exemptions. Even within the US, the law can vary from state to state. In all cases, you should seek clarification from the relevant government agencies and if necessary from a lawyer familiar with this aspect of environmental legislation before attempting to import, export or transport any item containing materials from endangered species. You will get a rough idea reading this page.
What is CITES?
The trade is diverse, ranging from live animals and plants to a vast array of wildlife products derived from them, including food products, exotic leather goods, wooden musical instruments, timber, tourist curios and medicines. Levels of exploitation of some animal and plant species are high and the trade in them, together with other factors, such as habitat loss, is capable of heavily depleting their populations and even bringing some species close to extinction. Many wildlife species in trade are not endangered, but the existence of an agreement to ensure the sustainability of the trade is important in order to safeguard these resources for the future.
Today, CITES accords varying degrees of protection to roughly 5,000 species of animals and 28,000 species of plants against over-exploitation through international trade. They are listed in the three CITES Appendices. The species are grouped in the Appendices according to how threatened they are by international trade. They include some whole groups, such as primates, cetaceans (whales, dolphins and porpoises), sea turtles, parrots, corals, cacti and orchids. But in some cases only a subspecies or geographically separate population of a species (for example the population of just one country) is listed.
The CITES agreement regulates – and in certain cases prohibits – international trade and movement (even non lucrative) in certain species and their derivatives. There are three basic categories that CITES uses to classify and regulate trade in particular species, known as Appendixes I, II and III.
The penalties for infringement can be severe. In the UK, for example, importing ivory without the necessary permits can carry a jail term of up to 7 years and unlimited fines. In addition, items that are not accompanied by the correct permits will be confiscated without compensation.
There are many species which are in some degree endangered but do not warrant or, for some reason, cannot be given the vigorous protection of CITES. These species are often protected by national legislation.
How does CITES apply to musical instruments?
From the XIX century and mainly in the XX century, many synthetic materials have been developed to substitute natural materials and in most cases with superior performance. But at the same time, the trade has increased in such way that, together with the increase of the population and need of energy and raw materials, the net result is that as never before the human being over-exploits the wild live and habitats.
Among the old crafts only a few remains the same in the XXI century, and musical instrument making is one of them. And that's why wooden musical instrument trade is always under the sight of CITES.
If you own and old instrument you should know that travelling internationally with musical instruments does require some familiarity with the CITES regulations. It is very easy to inadvertently contravene these very complicated laws. Wherever possible, avoid travelling with instruments containing any ivory, tortoiseshell, Brazilian rosewood or other precious components: the amount (and the cost) of the required paperwork is both substantial and time-consuming. Taking into account the additional risk of loss or damage due to airport baggage handlers, you may well conclude, as others have, that a legislation-free, easily replaceable ‘travel’ instrument is a very good investment indeed.
Violin bows with ivory bowtips may be seized for lack of documentation at international customs. At present, this is not happening, but musical instrument makers, antique dealers and museum curators all need to be aware of this legislation.
Is the musical instrument trade the cause of over-exploitation of any species?
Over 200 different tree species worldwide are used to make musical instruments. Ebonies, rosewoods and mahoganies have been valued for centuries for their resonance and beauty in making a range of instruments. Unfortunately at least 70 of these species are threatened with extinction in the wild.
Musical instrument trees or ‘tonewoods’ provide some of the most valuable timber in the forest. Although the musical instrument industry is by no means a leading force behind the demise of these rare species, musical instruments require the highest-quality timber that often comes from slow growing, older trees. Unsustainable logging practices for this wood often have negative impacts on the forest as a whole and yield few benefits for local people.
Perhaps the most helpful and simple approach is encouraging the use of native timbers that are locally grown in forest plantations. Musicians and musical instrument makers will find it makes sense to rely on local materials and to only use foreign materials from approved sources. Instruments do not need to be made of rare and valuable materials to play well nor does every modern instrument need to be a copy of the highly decorated (but hardly used) instruments held in museum collections.
the best musical instruments need to be made of species threaded of extinction?
Brazilian rosewood (Dalbergia nigra) -a timber which should not be confused with Brazilian mahogany- was placed CITES in Appendix 1 in 1992. Brazilian rosewood, also known as Rio rosewood, palisandar and jacaranda, is a true rosewood; dark brown and hard with interesting grain patterns. For many years it has been considered the best of all possible choices of wood for the back and sides of classical guitars. It has also been used for pianos, violin pegs, bridges, and fingerboards of guitars and mandolins and also for violin bow fittings.
Bigleaf mahogany (Swietenia macrophylla) is widely used for instrument backs, sides and necks. Upgraded from CITES Appendix III status to Appendix II with effect from 15 November 2003. Currently, only logs, sawn boards and plywood sheets require import/export permits, generally meaning raw materials only – not finished instruments, though that could change.
The aromatic wood of the cedar (Cedrela odorata, known in trade as ”west Indian cedar” or “Spanish cedar”) is in high demand for cigar boxes, but also extensively used for housing, furniture, household implements, musical instruments, veneer and plywood. The cedars of Central and South America, once common species, have been selectively cut for at least 250 years for their timber, which are valued locally for their resistance to rotting and insects and internationally as a precious wood. The cedar also suffers from extensive deforestation.
Elephant ivory is listed in Appendix I and consequently all international commercial trade is banned. Ivory has been used in musical instruments for centuries. The white keys on many pianos are covered with ivory and it has been used for nuts, saddles and tuning pegs, on guitars, lutes and other stringed instruments. Other uses are violin bow tips, entire woodwind instruments, bagpipe fittings, inlays, and decoration on nearly any type of instrument. It is fortunate that cow bone is such an adequate material for nuts. In some countries, ivory stockpiles have been burned and the people and countries presently holding ivory stocks are delighted to be able to sell. Conservationists fear that the stockpiles will now increase, that trade in ivory will be stimulated and point out that elephants are still being killed by the hundreds.
Tortoiseshell is another Appendix I species for which full import and export certificates are required. It should be noted that the term ‘tortoiseshell’ actually refers to the keratin scutes of specific marine (sea) turtles, and not to the scutes from terrestrial tortoises. All marine turtles are now listed on Appendix 1. The species that has suffered most from exploitation for tortoiseshell is the Hawksbill turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata), though other species such as the Green turtle (Chelonia mydas) have also been impacted by this trade. Tortoiseshell was used for picks, pickguards, inlays and bow fittings.
African blackwood, known also as Mpingo, once covered great stretches of Africa and has been grown in Asian plantations. It is a large, slow growing, gnarled tree but a small portion is usable, and is the preferred timber, for making oboes and clarinets. Possibly 100 thousand of these instruments are being made from African blackwood each year. The countries that hold mpingo are reporting some success at protection, but poaching is also suspected. Other woods and also the synthetic Bakelite was once consider as good or even better for that purpose. But for any unknown reason now the musicians prefer the blackwood.
There are hundreds of species of ebony and almost every one can be considered endangered in some way. Some of the ebonies may already be extinct, certainly many areas where these trees occur naturally can no longer provide commercial timber.
Indian rosewood is protected by Indian legislation which prohibits the export of logs. Only converted timber can be exported. Current research is beginning to show that trees of instrument-making quality and size still exist, but in limited numbers. Replanting programs are in existence, but as the tree takes 180 years to reach maturity it will be a long time before a new crop of large trees are available. Ebonies and rosewoods are freely available in musical instrument-making catalogues and are extensively used in factory production.
the best musical instruments are made of species listed by CITES?
the most expensive musical instruments are made of species listed by CITES?
Expensive materials are only used in good instruments, and can be an indication of the quality. But expensive materials don't make an instrument to be better. Just only imagine a very bad guitar with a very good diamond embedded on its head.
How many permits do I need to transport an instrument that contains a part
made with a material listed in CITES Appendix 1?
These permits can take several months to obtain, so plan ahead. Most management authorities levy a charge for these permits.
Do I need these permits just for a temporary visit?
What happens if I travel without the permits?
How can I prove my instrument only contains Appendix 1 materials that were
taken before the convention came into effect?
How do I know if I need a permit to import or export a guitar?
I am not importing (or exporting) the guitar for commercial purposes, but
for private use. Do I still need these permits?
My guitar was made in 1968, long before Brazilian rosewood was added to
CITES Appendix 1. Doesn’t this mean it is exempt and that therefore no permit is
Can I legally carry tortoiseshell picks with me when I travel?
What about picks I have made myself from a 100 year-old antique hairbrush?
Surely these must be legal?
There are further complicating factors with regard to “reworked” antiques, in that under the ESA (in the US) the item also loses exemption if it has been “bought, bartered, offered for sale or leased” at any time since it was subject to the Act. This is a complex area, and if you are intending any kind of transaction or transport of either elephant ivory or tortoiseshell within the US, you are advised to seek expert advice from a lawyer well versed in conservation legislation. Ignorance of the law is unfortunately not an excuse even if you make an innocent mistake and are caught.
Re-working Antique Tortoiseshell for Picks - Is it Legal?
It should be noted that the term ‘tortoiseshell’ actually refers to the keratin scutes of specific marine (sea) turtles, and not to the scutes from terrestrial tortoises. All marine turtles are endangered and now listed on Appendix 1.
The species that has suffered most from exploitation for tortoiseshell is the Hawksbill turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata), though other species such as the Green turtle (Chelonia mydas) have also been impacted by this trade.
Being in possession of a tortoiseshell pick is not offence (unless it can be determined that you obtained the tortoiseshell illegally). So, if you re-worked your great-grandmother’s 1920's tortoiseshell hairbrush to make picks for your own use, you are not committing an offence. However, if you try to sell those picks or you attempted to cross an international border with one (without having the necessary permits), you are.
The sale of any tortoiseshell guitar picks is illegal (unless they were manufactured *AS GUITAR PICKS* prior to 1947). The sale of picks made from other antique items after 1947 is a very serious offence. We have just received this note from CITES enforcement for the UK:
"As you are probably aware, worked items made from tortoiseshell that acquired before 1 June 1947 do not require Article 10 certificates to allow them to be used for any commercial purpose – which would include sale. However, if a pre-1947 worked item is subsequently re-worked after 1 June 1947, then the derogation would not apply and an individual Article 10 certificate would be required. Anyone selling such re-worked items without an Article 10 certificate would be committing an offence under Regulation 8(1) of the Control of Trade in Endangered Species (Enforcement) Regulations 1997 and, if convicted, could face up to five years in prison, an unlimited fine or both.“ This law applies within the UK, and not just to travellers crossing borders.
It may seem that these are severe penalties for using antique
tortoiseshell that already had an exemption in its previous form. If the item
causes no injury to our endangered sea turtles, why would it be illegal?
There were tortoiseshell picks manfactured before 1947. D’Andrea made tortoiseshell picks from 1930 to the late 70’s, but you normally can’t determine when an individual pick was made. Unlike guitars and banjos that have serial numbers, there is no way to prove a pick’s date of manufacture. So, even if you happen to have a tortoiseshell pick manufactured before 1947, it is unlikely that you could get an Article 10 certificate for it.
Even when tortoiseshell could still be legally obtained, many musicans opted for other kinds of picks. Unfortunately, popular musicians that attribute their sound to using tortoiseshell picks are adding to their mystique. Even if the picks these musicians are using have been legally obtained, other players wanting to achieve the same sound may buy tortoiseshell picks from any source available.
Fortunately, there are more good picks to choose from today then there ever were. Clayton Ultem Gold, Wegen, and Tortex are just a few brands. One which has been said to actually have the sound and feel of the old tortoiseshell picks is Tortis made by Red Bear.
My guitar, made in 1958, has Brazilian rosewood back and sides, and an
original elephant ivory nut and saddle. What do I need if I wish to take it with
me on an international tour?
Are there other restrictions I need to know about?
What about the abalone inlays on my violin bow or banjo?
Can a guitar fitted with a fossilized Walrus ivory saddle be transported
internationally without the need for permits, then?
I fitted a nut and saddle recently made from “pre-ban” elephant ivory. How
can I get a CITES permit if I wish to take this guitar abroad?
I purchased a new Brazilian rosewood guitar in 2003. I now wish to travel
abroad with it on my next tour. What paperwork do I need?
I have a late 19th Century violin bow with original ivory and
tortoiseshell fittings. What documentation is needed if I with to travel with
My guitar is made of Honduras mahogany. Do I need a permit?
I have head about an exemption for “personal effects”, what can you tell
me about this?
What happens to items seized by customs? Can I buy them back? Will I get
them back if I pay the fine?