Anyone who has read an even brief history of Brazil has heard of Brazilwood, known as Pau Brasil in Portuguese, which is how Brazil got its name.
The wood is reddish-orange in color and was highly sought after in Europe after its discovery, particularly for the dye extracted from it for use in high-end fabrics.
While the demand for it was consistently high, the supply soon dwindled and the economy surrounding it broke down.
These days, even though the wood is no longer needed to replicate its beautiful hues, the demand for it remains strong in an area one might not expect: Classical instrument making, specifically in the production of violin bows.
Known as Pernambuco-wood in the classical music world, it was in the 18th century that the wood was discovered to have properties highly appreciated by European bow makers. The durable yet flexible material, which doesn’t rot or attract insects, is considered to be of the highest caliber and one that is sought after the world over.
Additionally, and perhaps more importantly for classical musicians, the wood allows for a better timber and higher musical volume.
Check out this infographic with a timeline of the economic cycles of Pau Brasil.
Unfortunately, the species is near extinction today, not only due to the long-abandoned transatlantic trade, but because of deforesting efforts from what came after, mainly sugarcane and coffee production.
Today, it’s a protected species but that doesn’t stop illegal removal in areas that aren’t always actively policed. There are even licensed suppliers in terms of bow-selling, and luckily foreign buyers are educated on the subject and therefore request proof against illegal harvesting.
If you’d like to see the tree close-up, a trip to Pernambuco is your best bet, for they have the only museum dedicated to the tree (Museu do Pau Brasil) and the largest grouping, numbering 50 thousand, of young Brazilwood trees.
If you understand Portuguese, I also recommend the documentary A Árvore da Música (The Music Tree). Below is the trailer.