Always worth a royal ransom

Ebony, sought after by world craftsmen for its unique color, stability, and fine finishing quality, was at one time cherished nearly as much as gold. The primary reason: The wood grew thousands of miles from those who demanded it!

Hundreds of years before the birth of Christ, Ethiopians paid Persian rulers a tribute of 200 ebony logs every three years. Delivering the wood meant trekking across the desert from the interior, then a long sea voyage.

In ancient Egypt, ebony was floated down the Nile from deep in the continent, and reserved strictly for pharaohs. King Tut's tomb yielded numerous objects made from the wood they called hebni—an ornate throne, several statues, numerous chests, and the sliding draw bolts that latched the doors for 2,500 years!

For India's reigning monarchs, nothing would do except ebony scepters to wave over their subjects. Because at that time it was believed the wood was an antidote for poison, royal households also had it made into drinking cups in hopes of foiling assassination attempts.

Even in the Old Testament, this sought-after wood made a newsworthy gift. In Ezekiel 27:15, it says " ... they brought thee for a present horns of ivory and ebony."

History may repeat itself. Due to dwindling sources and foreign export regulations, ebony rises in price as supplies shrink. The blackest ebony, from Gaboon, Africa, is nearly impossible to find at any price. The black-brown-gray variegated ebony most often offered originates primarily in southern Asia. Even this Macassar ebony sells for a royal ransom of $30 per board foot.

Photograph: Bob Calmer Illustration: Jim Stevenson