There are generally two types of ebony; the first being Makassar ebony from the island of Sulawesi, formerly known as Celebes, Indonesia, sometimes otherwise known as Indian ebony or coromandel. Makassar ebony is one of the rarest, most distinctive and luxurious woods available, with dark and lighter stripy bands in the grain.
The second and more widely used ebony is African ebony, generally named after the country of origin, such as Cameroon or Nigeria, which also can have a variable colour, although the intense rich black of this wood when finished and its rarity has made it one of the most highly sought after materials through the centuries.
Solid ebony furniture is very rare because of its expense and scarcity and also because as a very dense and hard wood, it can be temperamental and difficult for craftsmen. It is used commonly in smaller, decorative objects and musical instruments. More often, it is used as a highly finished veneer or in marquetry inlay, often juxtaposed with ivory, as well as for ornamental turning.
After Spain acquired a trading monopoly in the 1580’s, a European fashion developed for ebony, especially in the form of decorative cabinets. Some of the best examples come from Naples and Spain during this period from the cabinet maker Iacopo Fiamengo (active 1594-1602). Ebony furniture was also taken back to England via the East India Trading Company routes in large numbers.
As the taste for ebony increased cabinet makers using this material expanded past the Holy Roman Empire to Flanders and France the taste grew; French cabinet makers even acquiring the name ebenistes in the mid 17th century. Many French ebenistes originally came from the low lands, such as Pierre Golle, ( 1620-1684) a court cabinet maker under Louis XIV who worked in the Gobelin Workshops in Paris, whose influence extended to that of his son-in-law Andre-Charles Boulle (1642-1732) and also Gerrit Jensen (active 1680-1715), who is widely credited with bringing “Boulle” marquetry set in an ebony cabinets to England. Ebony and ebonised inaly can also be found n English Regency furniture, such as in the Greek and Egyptian revival work of Thomas Hope (1769-1831).
Ebony furniture was also very popular in the early 20th century during the art deco movement because of daring severity in terms of the clean lines of modernism. Parisian born Alsatian artist Emile-Jacque Ruhlmann (1879-1933) used ebony extensively in his work of the 1920’s, and was also adopted and used in the work of the Vienna Secession Movement of the same decade.
As with Chinese lacquer, mimicking ebony has proved to be an economical and environmental way of having the same luxurious effect, though never with the sheen or excellent lustre found in the wood. This can be achieved by the use of stains on other hard woods with similar grains, such as boxwood, and is encouraged. African ebony has been listed as endangered by the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature).