Having a total of 88 black and white keys, pianos have been a vital music instrument for long. As much as the history of its music is interesting, so is the story of its key manufacturing.
Initially, when a lot of things were made from materials that were either hard to obtain or were obtained from the animals, similarly, piano keys were made from ivory – the white creamy substance that makes the major substance of the tusks of elephants.
The practice of keys being manufactured from ivory continued till long. However, in 1989, sensing the decreasing number of elephants (from 12 million to 400,000) as a result of poaching for the material, Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) banned the use of ivory of key manufacturing.
So, answering the question, if your piano was made in the 1970s, chances are that its keys will be very much made of ivory. However, if it’s the latest model of, let’s say, Yamaha, then its keys are manufactured from plastic or rather, Ivorite: Yamaha’s own plastic that has been given the feel and the shape of the ivory without using the animal product at all.
Although there has been a ban on the use of ivory to manufacture keys of the piano, the latest work—a half-tail given birth after a strenuous three-years of work—by the German piano manufacturer, Bechstein, has been endowed with an ivory keyboard to mark the 160th anniversary of the brand.
The creation of this “piano d’exception” was not meant to spark and controversy and yet it did, mainly because of the use of ivory. Majority of the NGOs serving to conserve the environment eyed the production as nothing but one of the links of the chain leading to the endangerment of the elephant species.
Unveiled in March in Berlin, the piano has been rendered as a replica of the Cal Bechstein’s original creation of the 19th century. It’s been currently housed in the imperial palace of the Forbidden City of Beijing for a short exhibit before its delivered to the final buyer whose identity and nationality has not been revealed.
As we said, the project did cause some controversy, as according to NGO Care For The Wild International’s director, Philip Mansbridge,
“The decision to use ivory for the keys is extremely irresponsible and in a very bad way.”
It is indeed evident that Bechstein wanted to create a masterpiece of the 19th century, but the fact still remains that at that time, the population of the elephants was about 12 million. Now that it has been reduced to some 400,000, the use of ivory is not only alarming but saddening.
What’s more saddening is that since there hasn’t been the implementation of the measures to stop the animal poaching to obtain ivory. In the year 2011, alone, 14 large-scale ivory seizures, a record under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), had been seized.
What’s more is that the occasional sale of ivory has been authorized by certain African countries. The sale of ivory worked before 1947 is also legal, provided you have a certificate of authenticity.
The use of the ivory by the Bechstein indicates a “legal” acquiring of ivory after obtaining a credited certificate from the CITIES.
According to the cultural manager of Bechstein, Gregor Willmes,
"We bought it from an accredited German ivory supplier, who assured us that he only sells ivory bought for a long time, in a limited way. We only use the ivory keyboard in countries where we have permission," he says.
The piano keys made from ivory is evidently encouraging the demand of the material, despite the fact that its use is illegal. But the fact also remains that majority of the keys are made of plastic, today.