Pocket knives come equipped with handles of all types: plastic, nylon, titanium, wood, stone, even bone. But over the last decade or so, ebony, a wood that comes from several tropical species of tree, has become relatively absent. Ebony is dark in color and so dense that it sinks in water. It’s incredibly fine-grained, hard and smooth when sanded and polished, which makes it ideally suited for both aesthetic and practical use, such as in a knife handle.
The limited supply of ebony is a result of decades of overharvesting. The most desirable timber is so dark that it appears to be pure black, but roughly nine in ten logs contain wood that’s streaked with lighter variations on the color. Loggers can’t predetermine which trees will produce each type of wood, so they would cut down trees until they encountered a sellable log, leaving the rest behind to rot on the forest floor.
In 2008, the United States expanded the Lacey Act, a 1900 law designed to prevent the illegal trafficking of wild animals, to include plants and their byproducts, such as paper and timber (the European Union enacted similar regulations in 2013). The law forces companies to find legal supplies of ebony and also to support ethical and sustainable practices of harvesting, which made the wood even more difficult to get. It didn’t affect the knife industry as much as the music industry though — instrument makers prize ebony for the same qualities that make it a good knife handle (beauty, durability) and it’s commonly used as fingerboards in guitars. (After two separate government raids of its facilities, Gibson Guitars famously agreed in 2012 to pay over $350,000 in penalties for illegal ebony imports that came from Madagascar.)
It’s also the music industry that’s helping solve the problem. In November 2011, Taylor Guitars assumed ownership of the Crelicam ebony mill in Cameroon along with Madinter, a company that distributes woods for musical instruments. Under their guidance, Crelicam has been promoting the ethical and sustainable harvest of ebony. One method it’s implemented is an increase in the price of logs with streaks so that they’re no longer left behind, and it’s coupled that with an initiative to increase awareness within their industry and to foster acceptance of these woods that were formerly deemed imperfect.
Buck Knives recently released updated versions of two of its classic pocket knives, the 110 Folding Hunter and the 112 Ranger. Both are now available with ebony handles — the wood comes from the Crelicam mill — for the first time since the 1960s. Buck Knives is also helping out to re-educate people on ebony; you’ll notice a note in the product description for both knives stating that variations in the wood “are not flaws, rather nature’s own design.”
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