Brazilwood: A Country, A State and A Tree of Pride and Beauty
Written by Stephen Guild
Question: What do the name of a country, the name of the state where Recife is located, a highly prized fabric dye and bows used by renowned stringed instrument players have in common? Answer: A tree.
Soon after the Portuguese “discovered” what is now Brazil, they found trees whose wood had both strength and flexibility and a deep red hue inside. They gave them the name pau-brasil (Pau is Portuguese for “wood”, and brasil is said to have come from brasa, Portuguese for “ember.”) Brazilwood trees became a central part of the exports and economy of the land and lent their name to the country that is now called Brazil.
In the 15th and 16th centuries, brazilwood was a rare commodity and was highly valued in Europe. A red dye called brazilin from the tree was converted into a powder and used in the manufacture of expensive textiles, such as velvet, which was in much demand during the Renaissance.
In a few years, the Portuguese established a very profitable operation to cut and transport large numbers of brazilwood logs to Europe. At one time, there was a stockpile of brazilwood logs in Paris of more than 200 acres. Excessive exploitation led to a significant decrease in the number of brazilwood trees in the 18th century and caused the collapse of this trade.
Brazilwood was first used for bow-making in the late seventeenth century. In the eighteenth century, the renowned bow-maker François Xavier Tourte recognized the exceptional qualities of the wood: rigidity, flexibility, density, and beauty, and its ability to hold a fixed curve. Within a short time, brazilwood replaced all other woods for bows.
In a long Smithsonian Magazine article (April 2004) about the importance of the brazilwood tree to musicians, Günter Seifert, violinist with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, said that “some people think a bow is only wood and hair, but the bow can be more essential to expressing the soul of the music than the violin is. It’s better to have a fine bow and a mediocre violin than a fine violin and a mediocre bow.” It’s no wonder, then, that pernambuco bows are used by almost all serious orchestral and chamber musicians.
At present, the species is nearly extinct and is listed as an endangered species. The trade of brazilwood is likely to be banned in the immediate future, and this has created a major problem in the bow-making industry which highly values this wood.
There is now a serious reforestation program in the state of Pernambuco. With proper care a tree will produce heartwood suitable for bow-making in thirty to thirty-five years instead of the eighty to one hundred years for a tree in the wild.
The name of the country, Brazil, the name of the state, Pernambuco, the red-dye used for fabrics and the extraordinary qualities of a wood to make beautiful music are all connected with this always valued and now rare tree.
The author gratefully acknowledges the many sources that were consulted in the writing of this article. While they provide the foundation, the interpretation and opinion are entirely those of the author.
Stephen Guild is Executive Editor of Recife Guide.