On the 2nd of January 2017, the new CITES laws came into force. The rules have changed the game for us guitar players, as every movement of rosewood and some bubinga now has to be accompanied by loads of paperwork. Will it be harder for you to get your hands on guitars using these woods in the future? And what if you want to sell a guitar that has rosewood components? Can you even carry your instrument to a gig abroad? Here’s a CITES 2017 primer.
It Began In Brazil
By now most of us will know that CITES rules on Brazilian rosewood have been in place for a good few years now. (You knew, of course, that CITES stands for Convention of International Trade of Endangered Species of Flora and Fauna.) The rules say that if you want to move anything made of the woods stated in the regulations, you need export papers to do so, along with accompanying certification about where that timber came from and when it was harvested. That even applies to vintage guitars made before CITES covered these woods!
Many companies decided not not use it any more for fear that their products would be either confiscated or destroyed. So why all the hassle? Brazilian rosewood was being so extensively used that it was becoming endangered, and substantial harm was being done to woodland ecosystems by over-felling.
2017: The Rosewood Ban Widens
The new rules cam into force on 2nd January this year. They will make it even harder for you to get your hands on a Fender George Harrison Rosewood Telecaster like this one or perhaps even a cool Suhr offset like this. Essentially, all rosewood, regardless of where it comes from, is now regulated. That means that you need a permit to move it around internationally, which you have to apply and pay for.
The rationale behind the new rules is essentially the same, namely that tree species worldwide are becoming threatened by their over-use in musical instruments. Many are considered endangered. The EU Commission asserts that the problem is “illegal and unsustainable logging”.
This law will hopefully stop ‘black market’ trade in these rarer woods by making it harder for manufacturers to ‘accidentally’ buy them. See the link here for just one example of how much wood is being transported in such a manner.
A few years ago, a story did the rounds that was alarming (or amusing, depending on your point of view). Allegedly Gibson were threatened with confiscation of their wood stockpile because the accompanying paperwork wasn’t quite right. In that case, it was no fault of Gibson, the story goes, but they very nearly lost the lot because of an administrative slip-up.
What does CITES mean for you and your guitar?
If your vintage Gibson Les Paul uses rosewood and you want to sell it internationally it will need to be accompanied by a CITES certificate and marked pre-convention, stating that it was made before CITES came into effect. The paperwork will also vary depending on where you are and where you are sending it.
The problem is that currently, the rules are being interpreted differently depending on who you ask. The EU Commission says the new requirements do not apply to sales between EU member states. They state that you should be able to travel freely within the EU carrying your guitar as a personal use item without needing a permit. However, you may still need to fill in paperwork to sell items overseas even within the EU. If you are from the UK and need more information, contact the APHA (Animal & Plant Health Agency) via this government site.
Now imagine you are Fender and you have a whole container of guitars ready to ship to Europe, what will you need? The devil, as so soften, is in the legal detail. It turns out each individual guitar in that container will need paperwork to prove its origins, clarifying which woods were used and where they were sourced. That requires complete, end-to-end documentation and accountability for each guitar.
This means that a lot of people have to spend a lot of time proving the heritage of their instruments. According to a few Fender dealer friends of mine, a lot of guitars are stuck in customs for months on end! It looks likely that we in Europe may start to see dwindling supplies of guitars using rosewood, as in monetary terms it costs the big companies a lot to have shipments held up like this.
I would imagine we will start to see fewer ‘low end’ guitars using these woods and they will become more sought after eventually by some people looking for pre CITES instruments.
On the UK guitar forum thefretboard I even saw a Fender dealership advertising that they would get no more rosewood guitars in and that you would need to hurry to buy what stock they had left in store. That page has now been pulled by the company, as everyone saw through it as a cheap advertising ploy to get people to buy their stock. However it is perhaps a sign of what is coming.
The following official quote from the CITES website details the outcome of a meeting in 2016 discussing the movement of these endangered woods:
The Convention of International Trade of Endangered Species of Flora and Fauna (CITES) held a conference from September 24 – October 4 this year in Johannesburg, South Africa where it was decided that all species of rosewood under the genus Dalbergia and three bubinga species (Guibourtia demeusei, Guibourtia pellegriniana, and Guibourtia tessmannii) will be protected under CITES Appendix II.
Kosso – sometimes called African rosewood (Pterocarpus erinaceus) – will also be protected.
While Brazilian Rosewood is currently under CITES protection (those laws will stay in place), this move places all the other nearly 300 species of rosewood under similar regulation.
This includes the East Indian rosewood and Honduran rosewood – as well as woods like cocobolo (Dalbergia retusa) and African blackwood (Dalbergia melanoxylon) – that are widely used in the manufacturing of stringed instruments, marimbas and some woodwinds.
It is too early to say for sure how this will all work out. For now I would suggest that you are very careful if you are thinking of buying or selling your own guitars internationally. You may want to check the CITES website and see what is happening, as at the moment the situation is all still a bit ‘up in the air’ and every country has a slightly different take on what is required when moving these woods.
As we understand it, you can travel with your guitar, as long as it uses under 10kg of rosewood in its construction. In theory you could be asked for receipts for the instrument to prove it was legally imported by the place that sold it to you. As you can see, it is all a bit of a minefield at the moment.
Who you gonna call?
If you’re in the USA, and want to sell your instrument internationally, you must apply for a re-export license from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Download the form here.
In the rest of the world, you need to contact the service for your country. The CITES website helps you find your contact agency; click here for more information.