From compact Baby Taylors up through the 900 and Presentation series, every Taylor guitar uses ebony for its fretboard. Sturdy, musical, and exquisitely beautiful, ebony is an ideal wood for fretboard construction. As is the case with many tonewoods, however, the world's supply of ebony is dwindling. The forests of Madagascar have been closed to harvesters since 2009, which leaves the West African nation of Cameroon as the final place guitar builders can legally obtain high-grade ebony.
In 2011, Taylor Guitars and Madinter Trade, S.L, an international distributor of guitars and tonewoods used to make musical instruments, partnered to purchase Crelicam, an ebony mill located outside of Yaoundé, Cameroon. The newly formed company, TLM, sent president Bob Taylor to the Cameroonian forest to witness firsthand how his company acquired the cherished wood. Mr. Taylor wasn't sure what he would encounter, but he knew something needed to be done to ensure ongoing sustainability and responsible stewardship of the world's remaining ebony supply.
In Cameroon, Bob was concerned to discover one particular aspect of the ebony-harvesting process. While guitarists are familiar with all-black ebony, most ebony trees actually contain lighter color strands, giving the wood a marbleized look. The only way to tell if a tree contains this marbleization is to cut it down and inspect the cross-section. Due to higher prices paid for all-black wood, harvesters considered marbleized ebony to be déclassé -- and they were leaving the cut-down marbleized ebony trees on the forest floor to rot.
"This was news to everyone else," Bob recalled. "Not even the previous owner of Crelicam knew. The cutters don't tell anybody that. I just started asking questions and went down that rabbit hole and they told me."
As Bob inquired further, it became apparent that for every ten trees felled, only one contained all-black ebony. On the spot, Bob decided that from now on, Taylor Guitars would pay the same price for marbleized ebony as for the all-black variety. No more wasted ebony, and no more ignoring the realities of what the forest has to offer. The distinction was purely cosmetic, and by paying an equal amount for marbleized wood, Bob effectively multiplied the amount of usable ebony in Cameroon by ten.
But sustainable stewardship is only part of the equation. Bob Taylor and his partners have also taken steps to make the ebony trade a valuable and dignified part of Cameroon's economy. "Our interest went beyond simply operating a business that only provided clients with uninterrupted supplies of legal ebony and fair prices," Bob says. "Our focus grew to include the workers in the factory, the citizens of the communities where the ebony grows, the truck drivers who transport the wood, and the forest itself in terms of how we can sustain it and set it up for future stability and harvest."
Bob and his colleagues have already implemented a plan to double their workers' pay, and are in the process of building the infrastructure to refine and prepare ebony fretboards. By building infrastructure, creating jobs, and enabling responsible stewardship of the forest, Taylor Guitars is working to make sure ebony fretboards aren't going anywhere soon. As Bob himself phrased it: "I feel strongly that if we can make it in Cameroon -- if we can build a wood business around ebony that people will be proud of -- we can have ebony for many generations."
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