• PW

Before the last kaluwara dies

The sadness you feel when hearing about another species that has disappeared from Earth is different to the sadness you feel when you hear about the death of a person or an animal. The sadness of extinction has a deadweight to it. It leaves no sorrowful echo trailing into the present moment where you can relive the departed in your current reality. Instead, the sadness of extinction is brutally final. It’s permanently disconnected, yet heavy on your conscience because you know why it has no room among the living anymore.

Diospyros ebenum, Ceylon ebony, kaluwara, or kaggawali, is one of the many remarkable plant species classified red in the IUCN list and currently disappearing from our planet. There’s something extraordinary about kaluwara trees that prefer to grow alone, away from their own kind, singled out between other trees; a trait that renders this tree peculiar to the ordinary laws of the wild where you stick close to your kind. Kaluwara trees exert an aura of cool clarity about them. Their smooth satin-like dark green leaves, and the characteristic cool, tranquil shade has inspired the many names that often connect to the night. Wood from kaluwara, Diospyros ebenum, or kaggawali, commonly known as Ceylon ebony, is highly valued for its incredibly dense heartwood, which takes at least a hundred and fifty years to mature. This mature wood is such a deep black that it looks almost inorganic, resembling matte plastic. Kaluwara wood is so dense that even a small piece sinks in water. This beautiful black and extreme density of ebony made it the most desired wood in the world to make intricately carved furniture as well as keys for pianos, string holders and tripods for other instruments, earning it the name ‘the music tree’. South Asian kings used Kaluwara to make cups for its supposed antagonism to poison. Pagans venerate this tree as a sacred being that has the ability to amplify magnetic energy, bringing protection and power. The roots are used for a rarely available ayurvedic medicine for dysentery. But, Ceylon ebony is very close to extinction.

From the sixteenth to nineteenth centuries, so many Ceylon ebony trees were cut in Sri Lanka that nearly 70% of the species was wiped out during that time alone. Now, it’s an irreplaceable material. But even today, when kaluwara is a strictly protected species, famous incidents like the Gibson guitar company illegal ebony lawsuit and countless other lesser known offenses tell us how adamant we remain about consuming this rare wood, at whatever cost.

Objects made from ebony are considered invaluable. When we brought some kaluwara furniture into our collection and started reading about the origin of the wood, we were struck by how remarkable this wood is. But, what really captured our attention was the ebony tree. We think that the magic of ebony is not so much in the beauty of its wood, but really in the living tree. The wood is only a testament to the remarkable living creature that ignores the rules of survival and chooses to grow alone at its serenely slow pace, even at the cost of being rare, biologically outnumbered and vulnerable to threats. This made us look at our small ebony collection with new eyes. It wasn't just the beauty or the rarity of this wood that makes us cherish ebony treasures. We find them to be important reminders of how our manufactured perceptions of value can blind us from the real beauty of a living entity and lead to such drastic consequences.

Starting to change the norm when it comes to ebony market values, we decided to sell two of our beautiful kaluwara chairs at an extremely low price and, most importantly, with a pair of kaggawali plants. We think the beauty of the tree precedes that of the object. The plants and the chairs were sold within minutes. Even when we released a handful of young ebony plants in interesting bowls a few weeks later, they were sold and welcomed into gardens of friends quite fast.

This little ebony plant made it to The Spice Trail at the new resort that they are about to open in Kanda—a little-known coastal town in Sri Lanka’s Deep South. It was homed directly in ground where the plant can stretch free and become a tranquil giant like kaluwara trees often do. It’s a treat to see this living story unfold there.

Seeing how a few people continued to inquire for more living Ceylon ebony stories, we decided it’s time to source some more to be planted in vintage bowls. Right now, there are only a few Kaluwara trees left in the wild. There is little chance for this plant species to survive. But, if more people planted them in private properties protected from illegal tree cutters, the Ceylon ebony story just might live on.

More ebony stories to come.

Rare collectibles with living ebony plants are only available in Sri Lanka because moving IUCN red listed Ceylon ebony plants is controlled under the convention on international trade for endangered species, wild fauna and flora.