Is the art of making instruments ecologically sound?
Is the art of making instruments ecologically sound? © Radio France  /  Suzana Kubik

Is the art of making instruments ecologically sound?

Endangered species and instrument-making are two subjects that have long shared the same stage. Is the art of making instruments an environmentally conscious one? France Musique looks at an ever-evolving field.

Tortoise shell, ivory, rosewood, ebony, mahogany... Musical instruments are often made using protected materials. These parts are sometimes functional pieces on plucked or bowed instruments, or even used to make the body of certain instruments such as the clarinet, the oboe, and bows.

Since 1975, the Washington Convention, or CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) regulates all international trade of endangered species. The rare types of wood used for example in the production of musical instruments are amongst the many species regulated. These are divided into three categories of protection, and subject to various restrictions regarding sale and import, both in its natural state and as a finished product.

Both instrument-makers and musicians are often faced with the difficulties of obtaining these natural resources: in order to cross a border, the instruments must come with a passport proving the origin and authenticity of the rare woods and other materials from which they have been made. A necessary regulation but unfortunately not the best solution to the current problem, according to Coraline Baroux-Desvignes, vice-president of the CSFI: Chambre Syndicale de la Facture Instrumentale [Union of Instrument Construction]: 

"It is obviously important to trace the origin of these rare materials, but this adds a great deal of administrative paperwork for all involved, without necessarily contributing to the preservation of the endangered species in question."

A mobilised profession

Though it is not the principal menace to the endangered species - instrument manufacture is only a fraction of the threat to endangered species - the profession is no less mobilised and conscious. Aided by scientists, manufacturers are constantly looking for alternative solution, using different types of woods and composite materials, or even by replacing the wood with synthetic materials. Such an engagement can, according to Jacques Carbonneaux, ambassador for the CSFI and CITES, and vice-president of the luthier association APLG, Association Professionnelle de Luthiers en Guitare [Professional Association for Guitar Luthiers]), serve as a model for other conservation projects and research into sustainable development: 

"Instrument-making should serve as an example to other wood-working professions because we have been pro-active in finding other alternatives. But one must be careful. When an alternative technique is found, it is important to consider the preservation of the new species and its environmental impact. Furthermore, the European regulations regarding chemical products, notably nickel and lead, require great vigilance on our part regarding the health of the consumer. So before a substitute solution is put in place, one must consider all these various aspects."

Beyond the regulations implemented by CITES, what solutions are there? According to Coraline Baroux-Desvignes, there is no easy answer:

"For guitars there are various different techniques that use local wood or bamboo, but for wind instruments, it is more complicated. The species used for the fabrication of clarinets and oboes possesses specific qualities, such as its density which ensures the quality and durability of the instrument. So far, no other wood has been identified as having similar qualities. Depending on the instrument, it is not always possible to replace a tropical wood with another wood. In any case, there is no single solution for a replacement. In certain cases the solution would be replanting, in others the use of local woods or composite materials, or even a combination of these different solutions."

The bow makers at the forefront

Amongst those who can only work using rare materials are bow makers. The sticks of French bows, considered by many as some of the finest in the world, are made using Pernambuco wood (also known as pau-brasil), an endemic tree found only on the Atlantic coast of Brazil, the country's national symbol. A species on the brink of extinction, menaced by deforestation and massive urbanisation, its commercialisation has been severely limited. The future of the profession of bow making now depends upon the future of this species. Since 2000, bow makers have invested heavily in the tree's preservation. United under the name IPCI, the International Pernambuco Conservatory Initiative, bow makers from all over the world have become precursors in various conservation projects in Brazil to protect and ensure the renewal of the species.

"The very first operation financed by international bow makers aimed to allow a tree nursery of a local association in Brazil to dig a well that would irrigate the seedlings. It was a symbolic action to show the bow makers' willingness to save these young trees", explains Parisian bow maker Arthur Dubroca. 

Since these initial actions, the bow makers of the IPCI have worked on various other projects, but not with the sole intention of cultivating Pernambuco trees for the construction of bows:

"The idea was to develop, with various charities and local agroforestry organisms, parallel sectors to the Pernambuco such as the cultivation of cocoa or coconut, depending on the location and demand of the local population. These actions continue to this day, with other species and in other regions of Brazil. In addition to allowing the biodiversity of the species, they also have a social component: we involve the local population by supporting local farmers without land or resources. They are given new land and a salary, in exchange for taking care of the cocoa plants and Pernambuco trees, which allows them to start a business, "explains the bow maker.

Today, thanks to the initiatives launched by the IPCI, 500 000 trees have already been planted in Brazil, and many bow makers continue to donate 2% of their income to raise awareness and to purchase land. It takes at least thirty years for a Pernambuco tree to reach maturity. On average, a bow maker uses an entire tree over the course of his career. The current reserve should therefore ensure the future of the profession and that of the Pernambuco tree. An example that many makers now follow, working with charities in southern countries to replant scarce resources.

"Instrument-making, as a profession, is adapting", says luthier _Christelle Lagarigue_. "As with bow makers and the Pernambuco tree, we are affected by standards and restrictions, which is naturally a good thing. As long as it is not banned, we will continue the over-exploitation of these trees.  Banning will force us to follow a new path and find alternative solutions, but I am not worried. It is a moment of collective awakening. Instrument-making in France is flourishing, of a high quality, and a strong motivation for the re-evaluation and evolution of our profession."

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