What Is Ebony? How One Ebony Tree Can Produce Ebony Wood Worth Millions

Man wonders what is ebony wood and why is an ebony tree so valuable, are there types of ebony wood, tree with black wood, and what is ebony wood price (value), and is there a texas ebony tree?

You’ve probably heard that ebony is one of the most valuable woods in the world but what is ebony? And why is it so valuable?

Ebony is a dense, black hardwood that comes from several species in the genus Diospyros, which also includes the persimmon tree.1 Ebony has a fine texture and can take on a high polish, making it valuable as an ornamental wood.

Ebony is often considered one of the most expensive woods in the world, with a single ebony tree potentially producing ebony wood worth millions. But what exactly makes ebony so valuable?

And how can a single ebony tree produce wood worth millions of dollars?

“What is ebony” is a question worth exploring, and this article will delve into the unique properties and uses of ebony wood and the threats facing the rare ebony tree to understand why it commands such a high price.

Properties and Qualities of Ebony Wood: What Is Ebony?

So, what makes ebony wood so special compared to other dense tropical hardwoods?

As one of the densest, hardest woods commercially available, ebony possesses many exceptional properties that make it extremely valuable:1

  • Density: Ebony wood sinks in water. With a specific gravity of over 1.0, it can be over 50% denser than oak.
    This makes it extremely resistant to wear and impact damage.
  • Hardness: Ebony has a Janka hardness rating of 3,220 lbf, making it harder than oak, cherry, walnut, teak, mahogany, and most other woods.11 Its dense cell structure makes it very difficult to dent or scratch and can take carved details very well.
  • Durability: The high oil content in ebony’s heartwood makes it naturally resistant to decay, mold, insects, and other sources of degradation. It has an exceptionally long service life, especially in indoor applications.
  • Machinability: Despite its high rating on the Janka wood hardness scale, ebony machines fairly well with sharp cutters and proper technique. The fine, dense grain structure allows ebony to take very smooth, glass-like finishes.
  • Color and Grain: The heartwood of ebony trees is rich, dark black/brown, often with dramatic black and brown contrasts. The wood has a fine, smooth grain and takes the highest polish of any wood.
    These qualities lend ebony wood a luxurious, prestigious appearance. The darkest, jet-black heartwood with no brown streaking is the most rare and valuable form of ebony.
  • Appearance: When sanded and polished, ebony takes on an extremely smooth, reflective black finish that is visually striking, especially when paired with lighter wood or metals. The contrast is quite beautiful and luxurious.
  • Stability: The density of ebony wood also lends it dimensional stability and resistance to cracking and splitting. This allows the wood to be fashioned into smaller articles like musical instrument parts without the risk of warping or checking.

These attributes make ebony ideal for creating objects of timeless quality, especially for musical instruments, fine furniture, turnery, and sculpture that will last a lifetime and gain value over generations.

Uses of Ebony Wood

Thanks to its beauty, hardness, and ability to be finely carved while resisting wear, ebony has historically been used to create luxury objects.

The ancient Egyptians used ebony wood for adorning sarcophagi and carving statuettes.1

Indeed, carved ebony artifacts over 5,000 years old have been found in Egyptian royal tombs. Today, ebony wood commands premium prices due to its exceptional appearance combined with hardness, stability, and rarity.

As a result, the primary uses of ebony wood cater to luxury markets including:2

  • Musical Instruments: The density and stability of ebony wood make it ideal for parts on fine musical instruments like clarinets, oboes, piccolos, pianos, guitars, violins, and cellos. Ebony is used for keys, fingerboards, pegs, and other critical components.
  • Luxury Furniture: The richest ebony lumber graces fine furniture, cabinets, boxes, bowls, and other decorative woodwork destined for mansions, yachts, and royalty around the world. The prestige of ebony adds to its collectability.
  • Exotic Car Interiors: Luxury market automakers like Rolls Royce use rare woods like ebony as accents in the most luxurious vehicle interiors. High-gloss ebony trim and inlays elevate brand prestige.
  • Jewelry, Accessories, and Decorative Objects: From crucifixes to chess sets, ebony wood suits any prestige wood object where rarity and luxury aesthetics command a premium price. Its color also pairs beautifully as an inlay with precious metals, mother of pearl, and ivory.
    Pen makers, gunsmiths, couture houses, and more have used ebony to create one-of-a-kind writing instruments, knife handles, glass frames, or objets d’art.
  • Sculptures & carvings: Ebony wood’s density makes it suitable for carved artworks from statuettes to puzzle boxes that showcase crisp details. Museums may display ebony sculptures worth millions.

That said, due to a shrinking supply, ebony wood use today centers mostly on smaller luxury objects – with most artisans now preferring to use cheaper alternatives such as meranto wood.

How Much Is Ebony Wood Worth? Ebony Wood Price

Due to several factors such as rarity and regulations (more on that next), a single mature ebony tree makes a precious find indeed. Gnarled, blackened trunks hide precious lumber worth far more than their weight in gold.

As an example, African Gabon ebony logs currently sell for $300,000 per cubic foot in sawn form.12 For perspective, that exceeds the price of many homes!

Highly figured ebony for musical instruments like clarinets can even exceed $450,000 per cubic meter wholesale. In comparison, oak logs sell for only around $100 to 150 per cubic meter – making ebony literally 3000 times more valuable!

However, to reach such a price level takes great age. A tree needs up to 200 years of growth for its heartwood to transition to the purest black.

Thus, only trees more than 150 years old can yield the most desirable grade of ebony. One perfect ebony yielding just 5 cubic meters could sell for $2.5 million or more at maturity – making it a veritable million-dollar tree!

However, most marketable ebony trees were harvested long ago, making the remaining old-growth specimens incredibly precious. That said, even smaller and younger ebony trees can still produce lumber valued at hundreds of thousands of dollars.

What Makes Ebony Wood So Valuable?

Fine ebony wood is considered one of the most expensive woods in the world, with prices per pound in some cases exceeding those of precious metals.12 But what exactly makes ebony so incredibly valuable?

Here are several key factors:

  • Rarity: Obtaining high-quality all-black mature ebony is incredibly challenging. The tree species that produce ebony tend to be slow-growing tropical hardwoods, and centuries-old trees with the darkest heartwood are virtually non-existent now due to overharvesting.
    These ancient trees produce wood that looks virtually black to the eye rather than dark brown. The younger the tree and lighter the heartwood color, the less valuable it is per pound.
  • Difficult Harvesting: Ebony trees often grow scattered on rocky soil rather than dense forests, making accessing and transporting valuable logs difficult and labor-intensive. Additionally, ebony only comes from the very center heartwood of mature Diospyros trees.
    Because these slow-growing trees have such wide sapwood rings surrounding the ebony heartwood, an enormous amount of wood must be harvested to obtain a small amount of usable ebony lumber. The ratio of waste wood to usable ebony can be 10:1 or more from an individual tree.
    This drives the price per pound of useable lumber quite high.
  • Illegal harvesting: Sadly, in parts of Africa and southern Asia where ebony typically grows, illegal tree poaching is common as people look to obtain this valuable wood. In spite of regulations, smugglers go to great lengths to obtain ebony heartwood.
    The legal restrictions and danger involved for illegal harvesters again limit usable ebony lumber supplies, which raises prices.
  • International regulations: Due to illegal harvesting and the threat of extinction to some ebony species, international regulations like CITES have had to ban the export and import of some types of ebony.13 Gabon ebony, for example, is listed in CITES Appendix III, requiring strict trade certifications.
    Again, this government regulation makes it harder to source fine ebony wood, further elevating prices.
  • Labor-intensive processing: Once harvested, ebony wood is very hard and dense, making it challenging to saw and work by hand. The processing of raw logs into usable boards, inlays, and other forms requires intensive physical labor.
    This specialized artisan crafting adds tremendously to the cost.

Given all these challenges around harvesting and processing ebony, how much does this exotic wood actually sell for?
Ebony prices vary based on:

  • Species
  • Heartwood color
  • Lumber grade: veneer vs. boards
  • Lumber form: raw, processed, or manufactured into parts
  • Volume purchased

In summary, fine ebony wood rivals precious metals, gemstones, and works of art in terms of value. A single small, older ebony tree from the right species with very dark heartwood could realistically produce milled lumber or manufactured items worth well over a million US dollars when finished.

Now that’s a valuable tree!

How Much Money Can One Ebony Tree Fetch? (How Many Board Feet in a Tree)

A mature ebony tree containing high-quality black heartwood could fetch an astronomical price given current market values. As an example, a relatively small 20-inch diameter ebony tree may yield around 50 to 100 usable board feet.

With rates over $10,000 per board foot, that single tree could sell for $500,000 to $1 million once milled into lumber. More realistically, an average 14-inch diameter, 20-foot-tall ebony tree may produce 10 to 20 board feet worth up to $200,000 total.

Of course, the finest ebony trees reaching 30+ inches in diameter could yield ebony worth millions. However, such older giants prove incredibly elusive in the wild today.

What Is Ebony Wood?

Ebony wood is a premium black wood that is extremely dense and heavy.2 It sinks in water, unlike most other wood species that float.

True ebony species have heartwood that is very dark brown to jet black. This dark coloration, combined with ebony wood’s fine texture and natural oils, allows it to take an exceptional polish which gives ebony wood its distinctive smooth, glass-like appearance.

How To Identify an Ebony Tree

Ebony trees can be identified by several distinctive characteristics:3

  • Bark and Trunk: When mature, ebony trees remain relatively small for tropical hardwoods, rarely exceeding 30 feet tall or one-foot diameter for the largest specimens. The bark often appears charred black with visible deep grooves and furrows running vertically along the trunk.
  • Leaves and Flowers: Ebony trees produce pinnate compound leaves with smooth edges, comprised of 2 to 5 individual leaflets. Flowers bloom in yellowish spikes from branch nodes, emitting a sweet fragrance.
  • Fruit and Seeds: The fruit of ebony trees resembles dates, turning from green to reddish-purple when ripe. Each fruit contains a single hard pit with ebony-colored seeds inside.
  • Native Range: True ebony species occupy scattered tropical forests with high rainfall. They rarely grow in dense stands and prefer disturbed forest areas and riverbanks.
    Knowing the native origin helps confirm species.
  • Wood Color and Density: When cut, ebony heartwood will appear very dark brown or black with possible lighter brown streaks. The wood feels extremely dense and heavy, often sinking in water.
    Its color darkens dramatically with age.

Using a combination of these physical and geographic traits will help correctly identify ebony trees versus look-alike species or lesser relatives. However, the most definitive giveaway comes from cutting into the wood itself.

True ebony species will show dark brown to pure black heartwood on the interior of the tree at maturity. Younger sapwood remains light beige or tan until transitioning darker with age.

The wood is extraordinarily dense and heavy, often sinking in water rather than floating. Tiny wood grain lines also run parallel within ebony species.

Expert inspection of inner wood coloration remains the most definitive way to identify an ebony tree.

Types of Ebony Wood: Black Ebony Trees

The word “ebony” originates from the ancient Egyptian word “hbny” and entered English via Greek and Latin. There are over 35 species of ebony under the Diospyros genus, scattered across Asia and Africa.

Today, the highest quality ebony timber comes mainly from tropical species of the genus Diospyros, including:

Ceylon Ebony (Diospyros ebenum)

Native to southern India and Sri Lanka. This species produces some of the finest and most valuable ebony in the world.4

Perfectly black heartwood. The slow-growing tree reaches over 65 ft. tall.

  • Status: Endangered due to overharvesting for centuries. Export restricted or banned in some areas.

Gabon Ebony (Diospyros crassiflora)

Native to Africa, Gabon ebony produces the darkest and heaviest ebony in the world at over 75 lbs per cubic foot. It is also the slowest growing, adding around half an inch of girth per year.5

Closeup shot of a short piece of wood taken from Gabon Ebony (Diospyros crassiflora).

(Image by: Paul venter21)

  • Status: IUCN Red Listed, Endangered. Commercially extinct in Gabon.
Eye-level shot of Sulawesi Ebony (Diospyros celebica) showing dense foliage.

(Image by: Stevanopuasa22)

Sulawesi Ebony (Diospyros celebica)

Native to Indonesia and also known as Macassar ebony, Sulawesi ebony is a luxurious ebony with dramatic black and brown striped wood grain patterns.6

  • Status: IUCN Red Listed, Vulnerable due to over-harvesting.

Though many species produce an ebony-like wood, only the slow-growing Asian and African species listed above offer true, luxurious ebony lumber worth its global reputation.

Other popular species of ebony under the Diospyros genus include:

Queensland Ebony (Diospyros humilis)

Grows in northeast Australia and parts of southeast Asia. The heartwood is streaked black and brown.7

  • Status: Abundant. Sustainably harvested.
Closeup of a Queensland Ebony (Diospyros humilis) showing glossy green leaves and tiny orange fruits.

(Image by: Mark Marathon23)

Closeup of Persimmon (Diospyros virginiana) showing dark green leaves and clusters of persimmon fruits.

(Image by: Puddin Tain24)

Persimmon (Diospyros virginiana)

Native to the Eastern United States. This multi-trunk produces lumber similar to ebony but with lower density.8
Often used as an inexpensive ebony substitute despite faster growth.

  • Status: Abundant. Sustainably harvested.

Only the heartwood of ebony trees produces the deep black coloration and density desired in ebony wood. So, what makes some ebony darker than others?

The simple answer is age. Ebony trees don’t produce their trademark black heartwood until very late in maturity, sometimes 200 years of growth or more.

The older the tree, the darker and more valuable the harvested ebony becomes. Sapwood and juvenile wood are generally light brown or tan.

Mature ebony trees over 150 years old produce the richest, darkest heartwood. Most ebony offered for decorative purposes or manufacturing comes specifically from the dense heartwood at the center of the tree.

This heartwood is typically very dark brown, almost black, with some lighter brown streaking in some species. The contrast between the dark heartwood and the lighter surrounding sapwood is quite dramatic in cut ebony logs.

Ebony wood is also extremely dense and heavy. It has a Janka hardness rating of 3,220 lbf (newtons), making it one of the hardest woods in the world.

The wood is also highly resistant to decay and insect attack. These properties make ebony wood ideal for items like musical instruments, fine furniture, and decorative carvings designed to last for generations.

Texas Ebony Tree: Tree With Black Wood

Texas Ebony refers to a small, flowering tree abundant across the southern United States and Northern Mexico.9 Despite the name, the Texas ebony tree belongs not to the Diospyros genus but rather to the legume family.

Photo of a young Texas ebony tree.

(Image by: Wendy Cutler25)

Formally called Ebenopsis ebano, Texas ebony remains an important regional timber across the American southwest.9 Though durable, it is not a true ebony.

Characteristics include:

  • Size: A shrubby, multi-trunk tree reaching 15-30 feet tall at maturity. Has a short, gnarled bole and irregular branching.
  • Leaves: Feathery, delicate leaves emerge light green changing to dark green contrasted by smooth bark. Drops leaves briefly in winter.
  • Flowers: Showy clusters of yellow flowers cover the tree in spring, attracting ample honeybees.
  • Wood: Its sapwood appears greenish while heartwood is ebony-black. Overall density ranks medium compared to true ebonies.
  • Uses: Valeria wood serves well for turnings, inlays, and engraving projects. Substitutes for true ebony in smaller musical instruments.

Though Texas Ebony lacks the density and prestige of African or Indian Ebony, plentiful supplies offer more sustainability. When harvested or pruned judiciously, this trouble-free city tree can supplement supplies of true, endangered ebonies on a limited basis.

How an Ebony Tree Germinates and Grows

Ebony trees follow complex, slow germination, and growth cycles to reach maturity:10

  • Seed Formation: Ebony seeds form inside date-shaped fruits that turn reddish-purple when ripe. Each fruit contains a single hard pit with one ebony seed inside.
    Seeds exhibit dormancy with specific germination requirements.
  • Pollination: Bees and certain moths pollinate the sweetly fragrant ebony flowers. Drought or lack of pollinators can limit fruit production to yield viable seeds.
  • Seed Dispersal: Birds and mammals eat ebony fruits, dispersing seeds through feces. Others drop below parent trees.
    But seeds require exact conditions to break dormancy.
  • Germination: After a period of cold dormancy, ebony seeds require alternating warm and cool temperatures to trigger germination. Even then, rates remain low at 10-30%.
  • Seedling Growth: Emerging seedlings first tap deep soil layers with extensive root structures. A flush of leaf and stem growth follows seasonal rains.
    Frequent grazing, droughts, and fungi take a heavy toll at this vulnerable stage.
  • Sapling Stage: Given ideal conditions, young ebony saplings invest heavily in root systems for 5-10 years before accelerating vertical growth. At 10-15 years saplings may reach only several feet high.
  • Maturation: Very slow radial growth must occur for 50-200 years before ebony trees begin flowering and producing viable seeds of their own. Ideal specimens reach only 30-60 ft. in height and 1 to 3 ft. in diameter when mature.

In forests, ebony regeneration challenges lead seedlings to occur sporadically, benefitting from disturbances. However, the exacting and protracted germination and growth limits population recovery from logging.

Best Growing Conditions for Ebony Trees: What Is Ebony?

High-quality ebony lumber depends on trees reaching exceptional maturity over long lifetimes. To support this slow growth, ebony trees require:

Graphics of growing conditions for Ebony trees showing the best climate and soil conditions for Ebony trees.

Climate Conditions

  • Tropical Climate: Ebony thrives in frost-free subtropical to tropical climates with hot, humid conditions year-round. Sheltered valleys avoid wind damage.
  • Consistent Humidity: Ebony adapts to year-round damp conditions, especially during vulnerable seedling stages. Ample precipitation (40+ inches annually) provides groundwater and evaporative cooling beneficial for ebony trees adapted to humid, jungle-like habitats.
  • Temperatures: Warm weather ranging from 68°F to 82°F suits ebony trees. Cold fronts or frosts damage ebony.
  • Sun Exposure: Partial shade proves best. Ebony grows underneath rainforest canopies not in direct sun.
    Dappled shade reduces transpiration stress for young trees while allowing mature canopies to capture sufficient sunlight to drive slow growth.
  • Low Elevations: Most ebony occurs naturally at elevations below 1000m closer to sea level. Floodplains and riverbanks supply groundwater and nutrients while disturbances help trees avoid competition when establishing.

Soil Conditions

  • Acidity Levels: Ebony favors acidic soil measuring between pH 5.0 to 6.5. Alkaline soils inhibit nutrient absorption.
  • Soil Fertility: Moderately fertile soil assists early growth. However, overly rich soils encourage competing vegetation which can reduce mineral uptake.
    Ebony flourishes even in rocky, poor-quality soil.
  • Drainage: Good drainage aids root development. Waterlogging asphyxiates ebony roots leading to decline and disease.

What Is the Hardest Wood in the World?

Opinions are divided on which is the hardest wood in the world. Most experts say that the Australian Buloke, which has a Janka hardness rating of 5.060 lbf, has the hardest wood in the world.

However, others argue that the Quebracho (which translates to ‘axe-breaker’ in Spanish) has the hardest wood in the world.

Why Don’t Musicians Just Use Plastic Instead of Expensive Ebony on Instruments Such As Pianos?

Musicians prefer ebony parts for their beauty, prestige, and tonal qualities. The hardness prevents premature wear while the density adds mass for improved sustain and volume.

The smooth polished finish is also very gentle on musicians’ hands during long practices and performances. These traits cannot be fully replicated by manmade materials.

The wood’s friction properties also lend themselves to rapid repetition of notes. Additionally, Ebony’s dark color contrasts well with the white keys on the piano.

Is Ebony Wood Sustainable?

With demand still robust worldwide, can ebony wood possibly remain a sustainable resource given its painfully slow growth?

Unfortunately, most evidence points toward continued unsustainable depletion until major changes occur.14

With such a high incentive to harvest, many ebony tree species now face endangerment and even extinction in the wild. Most of Africa’s indigenous ebony forests have faced illegal harvesting to supply global demand.

Complicating this is habitat loss clearing forests for agriculture. Ebony’s narrowly specific growing conditions also limit its ability to recover.

The trees grow best in humid, lowland tropical forests – environments facing heavy pressure from commercial development. In response, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List labels all export-quality ebony as threatened or endangered.15

CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, also prohibits or controls ebony trade from vulnerable regions like Africa and Asia.16 CITES controls have reduced illegal trading but some countries lack the resources or stability to enforce logging regulations.

Several prominent examples illustrate the growing crisis:

  • Gabon ebony is commercially extinct in Africa after a century of unrestrained logging for the European market.17 These trees take at least 50 to 100 years to mature but have been chopped down indiscriminately.
  • Asian Mun ebony is banned from export after its natural range shrank by 80% in a few generations.18
  • Indonesian Macassar ebony has declined by over 50%, largely from illegal logging supplying the global market.19

As noted earlier, individual ebony trees can be immensely valuable – easily worth thousands if not millions of dollars each. The natural temptation is to cut them indiscriminately to turn a quick profit.

This has decimated ebony populations across the tropics. If current unsustainable harvesting continues, experts ominously predict wild African ebony could go extinct within 15 years.

Without intervention, the world’s most valuable tree may soon exist only in history books and museums. On a more positive note, emerging cultivation efforts bring some hope.

Small-scale plantations, though still rare, demonstrate ebony can be sustainably grown outside its natural forest habitat. Regular thinning of these sustainably managed stands could supply future markets.

Using reclaimed wood, finding sustainable harvest ebony, and reducing unnecessary luxury consumption are also key strategies to preserve what little ebony forest remains. Additionally, experienced woodworkers are learning to work with small pieces of ebony through advanced joinery rather than requiring large solid boards and planks.

Close up image of the flower of an ebony tree.

(Image by: Tatters ✾26)

With coordinated global efforts, intentional reductions in consumption, and improved sustainable forestry tactics, it is possible ebony trees can continue to survive into the future even with occasional limited ethical harvesting. This would allow future artisans, musicians, and furniture makers to responsibly work with this unparalleled material.

Sustainable Ebony Wood Alternatives

With rapid depletion threatening the ebony tree, sustainable alternatives help meet artistic and musical needs while better-protecting rainforest ecosystems:

  • Plantation ebony: Carefully managed tree plantations could supply legal ebony wood long-term from renewable sources. However, startup costs are high and growth rates remain slow.
  • Similar species: Tropical woods like Gaboon, Nigerian, or East Indian rosewood have comparable density and coloration to ebony when harvested conscientiously. Meranto wood and paulownia wood are also popular alternatives.
    Musical instrument makers now prefer to use these more plentiful substitutes.
  • Synthetic ebony:20 Carbonized veneers chemically treated under pressure mimic the look of ebony using fast-growing woods like ash or maple. Although not equivalent, manufacturers can replicate black colors and grains.
  • Recycled wood: Collectors can swap vintage materials, musical instrument companies can reclaim factory leftovers, and salvagers can recover sinker logs from rivers to relieve pressure on living ebony trees. Every bit that gets reused helps.

While ebony alternatives reduce short-term scarcity, ongoing reforestation efforts combined with enforcement, education, and research offer the best hope for preserving the ebony tree as an iconic rainforest treasure. So, what is ebony, ebony describes a range of intensely black tropical hardwoods, most famously from the Diospyros family.

It remains among Earth’s most precious botanical gifts – at once a constructive resource, artistic inspiration, and genetic heritage commanding protection. The shiny black wood retains immense value, both monetary and intrinsic, thanks to unique properties honed over eons of exacting tropical conditions.

Sadly, human desire threatens to terminate what nature perfected over millennia. Yet ebony trees remain an unequaled material for expressing craftsmanship at the highest level, imparting a degree of luxury almost without parallel in the world of fine wood.

As it stands, the fate of ebony trees and humankind’s ability to harmonize economic demands with environmental sustainability remain deeply intertwined.

“What is ebony” is an intriguing question, and the value of an ebony tree spans well beyond dollars and cents, making it worth supporting by every measure.

Read More About What Is Ebony


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