What is Ebony?

Mary McMahon

Ebony is the wood of a tropical tree found in Africa and parts of Asia, especially Ceylon and India. The distinctly black heartwood has been prized for musical instruments, fine furniture, canes, chess sets, and other ornamental purposes for thousands of years. Stunning examples of ebony carving can be found in African marketplaces today, as well as in Egyptian tombs and Indian palaces. The unusually dense wood can be difficult to work with because of its hardness, but talented craftspeople can carve beautiful and elegant works of art from it.

Ebony is sometimes used in more expensive chess sets.
Ebony is sometimes used in more expensive chess sets.

The Diospyros genus, which includes the classic Diospyros ebonum, is actually quite large, with over 250 species. In addition to trees used for timber, it includes fruit trees such as persimmons and date plums, and the leaves and bark of ebony trees are used for a variety of purposes as well. Several species of this multi-use genus of trees are threatened in some areas, because it has been harvested unsustainably for the precious heartwood. Several organizations concerned about the health of global forests are working to preserve the remaining stands of ebony in the world, and to find a way for the wood to be used in an ecologically sound fashion.

Ebony wood is typically found in India.
Ebony wood is typically found in India.

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Finding true ebony can be difficult, because the wood is very expensive and many craftspeople make do with imitations to keep costs down. Using the weight of the wood is the best way to determine whether or not something has been made from true ebony, because it feels heavier than it looks. You can also inspect the grain of the wood, as it has a tight, fine grain that is also very distinctive. Using color is not a great indicator, because some types, such as Macassar ebony, have a naturally streaky grain, and most species lighten with age, causing artisans to dye pieces before sale, which may cover up the true color of the wood.

The color, grain, and texture of ebony vary slightly, depending on where the wood is from. Many tradespeople prefer ebony from India or Ceylon, because they claim that these woods are of a higher quality and tend to be more dense and less brittle. However, they also tend to fade more quickly, and are often dyed as a result. African ebony is much darker in color, and has been so heavily harvested that the wood may not be readily available for future generations to use. Wherever the wood is from, it is marked by unusual beauty and density which have captivated people for centuries.

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Discussion Comments


I would also like to know this, and can't find an answer anywhere. The Indian ebony knitting needles and crochet hooks are exquisite, and I'd like to think that such a natural product is ecologically sound as it is much less processed than metal or plastic needles, and also as a "tool" rather than an ornament it seems like good use of the timber. But are the trees being replanted? I believe the tree is "Diospyros ebenum". Can anyone tell us if we can sleep at night if we use these needles (the Rolls Royce" of needles!)


I would like to know whether to buy ebony knitting needles from India. I wouldn't like to buy non sustainably harvested products, yet they are so beautiful. What do you think?

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