National Geographic, January 2008


Bows from Brazil Critics praise the "exquisite poetry" of virtuoso Joshua Bell's violin.  His Stradivarius gets credit, but he says his two-hundered-year-old, $40,000 bow is just as important. "When i picket it up, it really brought out colors from the instrument that other bows didn't." Professional bows like Bell's are made from pernambuco, the wood of the pau brasil tree, which give Brazil its name. Centuries ago, its heartwood was used to make a red dye popular in Europe: European bowmakers took notice of pernambuco's strength and flexibility. But the tree has become rare as Brazil's population has encroached on coastal rain forests where pau brasil grows. In June the tree received new protection under CITES, the international treaty on trade in endangered species. Bowmakers are working on conservation programs for the tree-while some hope to find alternatives. Fortunately for Joshua Bell, the listing only restricts trade in raw materials, so string players won't need permits to travel with their instrument.  -Helen Fields


From top: pau brasil seedlings; seed pods; salvaged wood for bows, marked with chalk, shavings on a bowmaker's bench. Left, a cello bow made by craftsman Robert Morrow