Projects and Musings

CITES: What it means for Luthiers, customers and guitar owners (and me)

Hi all.

This last few weeks I’ve been looking at Guitar design for this building season, and have decided to make a model that I can replicate easily as a flagship and a junior version. This will be based on my original design of 10 years ago, which I never fully utilised apart from for my own guitar and two juniors before I moved on.

The idea is to refine that and make it accessible to players by using more standardised parts and sustainable and affordable woods, without compromising the original design aesthetic or balance.

However, at this point I decided to take a good look at how CITES will affect the export of guitars going forward, as I have exported guitars before and expect to do so again.

So, to make this easier to digest, I’ve made a video, and the basic text is transcribed below for reference.

Directly under the video is a bibliography of internet sources I used to compile the information. If anyone can point out any mistakes in how I’m dealing with this, please email me and I’ll issue any necessary corrections or updates, or add more information to this post if necessary.

Q &A on the implementation in the EU of the Listing of Rosewood and Palisander into Cites appendix II


Q & A on the implementation into the EU of the inclusion of new species into the CITES appendixes at CITES CoP17


Commission Regulation EC 865/2006


Council Regulation EC 338/97


CITES press release 2017 - New rules.


How Cites Works


The Cites Appendices


What is CITES


UK Govt info page - Endangered Species imports and exports


The Control of  Trade in Endangered Species Regulations 2018


Wood Database - Restricted and endangered List


CITES Conf 16.8 resolution on the movement  of musical instruments


Animal and Plant Health Agency


EU permits Certificates and Notifications


CITES press release on Mahogany Controls

Most musicians and luthiers will now be aware that under new rules, there are issues with the import and export of Rosewood. The problem is that the rules are very complex, and apply differently in different territories. The Advice that is often being offered refers to the US market, not to the EU, and not specifically to the UK which is approaching a situation which might become very different if and when the UK leaves the EU.


CITES is the Convention International Trade in Endangered Species. It's been in force since July 1st 1975, and it's an international agreement between a number of parties which includes both nation states (of which the UK is one) and regional trade blocks such as the EU. There are 183 parties to the treaty, and each has to transpose the rules That means that different nations and regions differ in how they implement the rules.


There are three levels of protection offered to species, set apart into lists or appendixes to the treaty. Appendix 1 listing is for endangered species, those most at threat of total extinction. In the case of Luthiers and wood suppliers this has related mainly to Brazilian Rosewood. This went into appendix 1 in 1992 - so technically all international trade in Brazilian rosewood ceased at that point.


Appendix 1 really is very restrictive. You can't move anything in Appendix 1 across international borders for any commercial purpose . That includes if it is on an instrument, such as a fretboard. You can however, get a passport to move it across borders to use it for performance or exhibition.


In the EU, the rules on this are very tight, and I'm told that the law is now being enforced where it has been the case that often it simply wasn't.


So how do you get a passport? Firstly, if the instrument is pre 1947, it falls outside the EU rules and the passport is a formality (Its useful to have one though, how do you prove the instrument’s age if you get stopped and asked at customs?). EU rules specifically date back 50 years before their implementation.


Secondly, if the instrument was first imported into the EU between 1947 and 1992 and you have some evidence of that, it should again be a formality (but the passport is absolutely necessary to comply with the law).


However, if it was imported into the EU after 1992, it would appear that this was done illegally, and therefore obtaining the passport might be very difficult.


The rule is that the wood, to be imported into the EU for the first time legally now, must be an antique: It must have been worked to its current state before 1947.


Even to sell a guitar with Brazilian Rosewood on it in the UK, (not for export), you must have an Article 10 certificate with your name on it, and it is illegal to even advertise the guitar for sale without this certificate number being included in the advert. To get that certificate you have to be able to show that the guitar was legally imported.

The one bright point here is that it's not illegal to own a guitar with an appendix 1 wood without certification. You're probably just stuck with it is all, unless you can obtain that certificate.


What's more important for luthiers is that we can move appendix 1 guitars across borders if they have the right certification for the purpose of repair and performance or exhibition. The passport or export licence for any instrument with CITES prohibited parts is APHA - the Animal and Plant Health Agency, part of DEFRA.

Appendix 2


But that doesn't really apply to many of us. We mostly don't want to export vintage instruments. But we do want to use rosewood and bubinga in guitars we make for local buyers. (Yes, Bubinga has also just landed in CITES appendix 2, it's now restricted)


So how does Annex 2 differ from annex 1?


For the luthier, we can be assured that if we are buying from a good supplier in the EU then the wood has been harvested legally. We don't need a certificate to buy it, or work it, or sell it inside the UK or EU. The wood, to have been imported in the first place, must be granted a certificate for export from the nation of origin.


If you want to travel with a modern guitar (post 1967 ish when Brazilian rosewod disappeared from production), that has an Indian Rosewood fretboard. Don't worry, that's not a problem in reality. There's an exemption for any transport less than 10kg in weight of prohibited wood. If it isn't Brazilian Rosewood, you're going to be OK. You can travel to gig, you can send abroad to exhibit, or have the instrument repaired, or it can be re imported into the EU if it was legally imported at some point


But that doesn't mean you can sell your guitar internationally - person to person private sales are not exempt in the way they are for other laws in the UK such as trading standards laws and the Sale of Goods Act etc - you still need an export licence.


To get the export licence to sell out of the EU, we must have proof that the wood has been harvested legally.


If the wood was imported before Jan 1st 2017, then the required form is a copy of an invoice for import from the supplier. This then shows that the wood is supplied pre listing in CITES appendix 2. If you bought it before Jan 1st 2017, then of course all you need is your own receipt.


If the wood is imported after Jan 1st 2017, the correct form is to have a copy of the import licence. That can be redacted to remove some non essential personal information such as the price paid, but it must show the customs stamp at the bottom. This form can then be submitted to APHA with the export licence request for the guitar. You can talk to them, they're fairly reasonable folks. I spoke to them this morning to confirm this information. Or alternatively there is a email address,


So now we're on to the matter at hand: Brexit


What does Brexit mean for the Musical instrument trade across borders?


If we're talking about trade between the USA and UK, then almost certainly there won't be any difference, certainly in the short term. Even if we leave the EU, it will take years for us to write our own regulations, and we probably won't bother in this area unless the guitar industry lobbies for a relaxation of the rules for vintage guitars - to get rid of the predated 50 years rule.


However, trade into the EU, if the UK does eventually leave the EU will be very different in regards to CITES - this is where it gets complex and a bit political and depends on the final deal we do with the EU.


The CITES regulations in force are not EEA relevant. They are EU rules, not Single Market rules. Norway for example, has its own regulations, and is not in the EU CITES area.


However, the EU Withdrawal Agreement as it stands at the moment tends to favour a Customs Union type agreement. CITES rules checking is a function of customs checking at ports.  Article 41 of the Withdrawal Agreement as currently proposed, states that any good put legally on the market in the UK is legally in circulation in the EU and vice versa. This provision continues until the Withdrawal Agreement is superseded by the future agreement. If the backstop kicks in, then this appears to continue to be the situation.


However, at this point the WA hasn't passed Parliament, and is unlikely to be able to do so in this sitting of Parliament - but until we leave fully there is likely to be no change to how we deal with EU countries. That could be many years away, if at all.




So what does that me for Me as a luthier.


Certainly for the foreseeable future anything that is not built directly to order for a customer will not use Rosewood or Ebony. Why not ebony? Well, because I've had problems with supply being poorly kiln dried and suffering shrinkage. I imagine this is due to suppliers rushing through stuff they haven't checked due to demand outstripping supply.


I'm now working on a design for a guitar based very much on my original model of a decade ago, but with sustainable woods and substitutes that don't appear in Appendix 2 of Cites. So I won't be using Central or South American  Mahogany for example, which is Appendix II - in fact, Honduran mahogany went on the list in 2011, it's been commercially extinct for years.


That means there will have to be some design adaptations - European Ash is a great wood, nice straight grains and high density gives it a good sustain and attack character, but it's heavy.


Sapele, despite its appearance and the temptation for people to call it 'African Mahogany', is nothing of the sort. It's not even the same genus of plant. It's a bit harder to work with because it has very interlocking grain. It's not endangered and therefore doesn't appear in CITES.


However that doesn't deal with the Rosewood issue for fretboards.


That has to be a synthetic answer. We know that some companies have already been dealing with an Ebony substitute. That, due to the poor quality of the ebony I've been recently supplied, is where I'm starting. Martin have used Richlite for a while. It's a synthetic substitute for Ebony.


However, there's a British company offering its own substitutes for both Ebony and Rosewood, and at a comparable price to A grade boards currently available via luthier supplies. The company is called Rocklite and I've got both their Rosewood and Ebony boards in stock, and that's what I'm going to be using for  the guitars I'm about to start making.


So, to recap:


If you've bought a guitar with a rosewood fretboard, and you want to travel abroad with it to play gigs, it's absolutely not a problem so long as it's not Brazilian Rosewood. If you want to travel with it you will require an instrument passport from APHA.


You can travel with any item less than 10kg of an Appendix 2 wood, without certification, so long as you aren't exporting it for sale. There's no need for a passport in law. However, if it were a luthier built guitar, you might want to travel with the receipt for it just to prove the point if asked, that it was purchased inside the EU. That would normally be enough to put off even the most officious customs officer. Nobody but a total idiot with no understanding of the law would confiscate your Ibanez jem at customs (unless they thought you were evading Vat or import duty!) If you're travelling to play, that's absolutely not a problem.


If you have a vintage instrument with any Appendix 1 rosewood or ivory tuners - get a passport or risk losing it at customs. In the UK, the issuing authority is APHA, (the Animal and Plant Health Agency).