Saffronart’s forthcoming auction ‘Elegant Design’ features some amazing ebony furniture. Elisabetta Marabotto unearths the fascination with one of the most enduring and sought-after of woods
London: Our upcoming Elegant Design auction features a collection of stunning furniture, as well as silverware and other rare finds. Quite often, silver takes over other pieces, perhaps because of its sheen and value. What about the appeal of less lustrous objects—wood, anyone? I’ve decided to dedicate this post to ebony—a wood that we all know is valuable, yet doesn’t pop in to our heads while talking about valuable objects.
Have you ever wondered why ebony has been so popular and sought after?
Let’s begin with the basics. Ebony (diospyros ebenum or Ceylon ebony) is a native wood of southern India and Sri Lanka. Its hardness allows for beautiful intricate carvings. The wood acts as a natural insect repellent and its smoothness— once polished—produces a black lustre similar to that of Chinese or Japanese lacquer, giving it a beautiful radiance.
The production of ebony furniture in India seems to have first begun along India’s Coromandel Coast, a textile-producing region where a number of East India company trading factories were based. Turnery (the art of making objects using the lathe) was and still is one of the most fundamental and outstanding of Indian arts. European visitors have expressed their admiration for this art form since the sixteenth century. A Dutch traveller, Georg Rumphius, recorded that “the Coromandel Coast ‘is exceptionally richly provided of this [ebony] as the natives make from it all kinds of curious works, as chairs, benches and small tables, carving them out with foliage, and sculpture”(Victoria & Albert Museum Collection, London). Also Francisco Pelsaert , a Dutch merchant who worked for the Dutch East Indies Company, noted in 1626 that in Tatta, Sindh, “Ornamental desks, draught-boards, writing cases, and similar goods are manufactured locally in large quantities; they are very prettily inlaid with ivory and ebony, and used to be exported in large quantities to Goa and the coast towns.” Writing at the close of the seventeenth century, Captain Cope, an officer of the East India Company, confirmed that at Tatta, ‘They make fine Cabinets, both lack’d and inlaid with ivory'( Victoria & Albert Museum Collection, London).
Europeans have, however, been acquainted with ebony since the Classical Age. References to the wood can be traced to Marco Polo’s books. By the 17th century, ebony had become one of the most appreciated of Indian woods in Europe, and quickly grew to be the most highly priced wood of that century. The first mention to Parisian cabinetmakers, ébénistes, dates to 1638, and, incidentally, the term finds its roots in “ebony”. Many European merchants in India adapted to these local customs which were previously discussed but others brought furniture from home or commissioned Indian artists to create western style furniture for them. This made the production and exchange of furniture quite varied, since traditional objects were produced along with western style furniture made of Indian materials.
These kinds of pieces, such as the ones featuring in our auction, are extraordinary because they witness the merging of western and Indian motifs as well as materials which makes these objects unique and rich of history.
Colonial furniture, like the furniture in our catalogue, has been admired since the 16th century up to contemporary times for its versatility, elegance and practicality and it has the power of adding beauty, distinction and interest to any interior setting whether modern or traditional.
Now that you know a little about ebony, you shouldn’t miss the opportunity of owning one of these unique objects of art. Drop by the Mumbai gallery to view our lovely collection of ebony furniture, among other prized woods.