History of Pernambuco Wood
The species Caesalpinia echinata Lam., which is found in the coastal strip of Atlantic Forest from Rio Grande do Norte to Rio do Janeiro, is known in Portuguese as “Pau-brasil”, in Europe and the USA as ”Pernambuco” or “Pernambuco wood” and in the local Indian tongue as “Ibirapitanga”, which literally means “red wood”. Its trunk yields an intense red dye, “brazilin”, which was much sought after by the cloth manufacturing trade in medieval Europe. Its commercial exploitation dates back to the very beginning of the occupation of Brazil; indeed, it comprised the very first source of revenue obtained from the new colony by the Portuguese Crown.
Prior to the discovery of Pernambuco wood, the dyeing industry in Europe used another species, called “Bresil” or “Bersil” (scientific name: Caesalpinia sappan L.), which came from Asia. This gave a reddish dye similar to brazilin but of poorer quality. The word “Bresil” explains the origin of the name “Pau-brasil” (= Brazil wood”, in Portuguese), bestowed on the tree Caesalpinia echinata, as well as the development of the nickname “brasileiros” (rendered in English as “Brazilians”) to denote those who traded in it. So important did this commodity become that the word “Brasil” came to represent the country itself”, ousting eight older names, including the indigenous “Pindorama”.
The English term “Pernambuco Wood”, adopted by wood importers and craftsmen in Europe and the USA, arose from the fact that most of this commodity used to come from the State of Pernambuco. But it is not restricted to this State. In early days the species had a widespread distribution within the Atlantic Ocean coastal strip: it was to be found in the States of Rio Grande do Norte, Paraíba, Pernambuco, Alagoas, Sergipe, Bahia, Espírito Santo and Rio de Janeiro.
For nearly 400 years Pernambuco wood was exploited and exported to Europe with very little control, because the species seemed to be an inexhaustible
resource. It is estimated that, in the sixteenth century alone, about 2 million trees were cut down. It should be noted, however, that as early as 1542 strict rules for the felling of the trees and punishment for its wastage were established by the Portuguese crown, which had established a monopoly on this trade ten years earlier. In 1605, King Philip II of Spain and Portugal fixed the annual quota as 600 tonnes, with the principal aim of limiting supply to the European market and hence keeping prices high.
Only with the advent of synthetic dyes in the 1870s, and the near depletion of the tree in its native habitat, did its sale as a commodity diminish, although it still continued to be exploited for a few more years.
Although it was originally so abundant, Caesalpinia echinata Lam. is an endemic species restricted to the Atlantic forest biome. Its historical and cultural importance was recognised by federal law no. 6,607 of 07/12/1978, which declared this species to be the national tree. Subsequently, May 3rd was adopted as its special day.
The Ministry of the Environment recently established, via ministerial order nº 320/2012, the National Programme for the Conservation of the Brazilwood tree, which defined the role of the Government in relation to this threatened species.
Pernambuco wood and violin bows
Nowadays, Brazilwood/Pernambuco wood still has special distinction and commercial value, not for dyeing fabrics but for making bows for violins, cellos and other string instruments. Professional musicians claim that no other kind of wood brings together all the necessary features such as resonance, elasticity, durability, beauty, length of curvature and the best tonal qualities. It became established as the most suitable material for the manufacture of violin bows by the Tourte brothers in the 18th century. The high resilience of the wood is one of its main attractions, enabling it to spring back to its original shape even after many years of use. The high volume of sound produced is another important feature. Indeed, the adoption of Pernambuco wood for violin bows enabled classical music to escape from the confines of aristocratic drawing rooms and to progress to capacious concert halls and opera houses. Without it, many talented composers and musicians would not have attained the success they did!
Unfortunately, the illegal trade in Brazilwood continues, despite it being an endangered species and one that is protected by law. Professional bow makers throughout the world argue that there is nothing which can replace It, Because of its importance, in the year 2000 the violin bow makers decided to allocate 2% of their revenue to help rescue the species. In the ensuing five years 500,000 seedlings were planted, but regrettably the necessary follow-up was not provided, so that no real scientific benefit resulted from the experiment.