Ebony is a general name for very dense black wood. In the strict sense it is yielded by several species in the genus Diospyros, but other heavy, black (or dark colored) woods (from completely unrelated trees) are sometimes also called ebony. Some well-known species of ebony include Diospyros ebenum (Ceylon ebony), native to southern India and Sri Lanka, and Diospyros dendro (= D. crassiflora, Gaboon ebony), native to western Africa.
Ebony is one of the most intensely black woods known, which, combined with its very high density (it is one of the woods that sink in water), fine texture, and ability to polish very smoothly, has made it very valuable as an ornamental wood.
Some species in the genus Diospyros yield so-called striped ebony, with similar physical properties, which is not evenly black, but striped. Most species in the genus do not yield ebony at all, even in those cases where they do yield timber (as in the case of American persimmon, Diospyros virginiana).
Ebony has a long history of use, with carved pieces having been found in Ancient Egyptian tombs. The word "ebony" derives from the Ancient Egyptian hbny, via the Ancient Greek ἔβενος (ébenos), by way of Latin and Middle English.
By the end of the 16th century, fine cabinets for the luxury trade were made of ebony in Antwerp. The dense hardness lent itself to refined moldings framing finely detailed pictorial panels with carving in very low relief (bas-relief), usually of allegorical subjects, or scenes taken from classical or Christian history. Within a short time, such cabinets were also being made in Paris, where their makers became known as ébénistes, which remains the French term for a cabinetmaker.
Modern uses are largely restricted to small sizes, particularly in musical instrument making, including piano and harpsichord keys, violin, viola, guitar, and cello fingerboards, endpieces, pegs and chinrests. Traditionally, black piano and harpsichord keys were ebony, and the black pieces in chess sets were made from ebony, with rare boxwood or ivory being used for the white pieces. Modern east Midlands-style lace-making bobbins, also being small, are often made of ebony and look particularly decorative when bound with brass or silver wire. Due to its strength, many handgun grips, and rifle fore-end tips, are made of ebony as well. Many plectrums, or guitar picks, are made from this black wood.
In Dakshina Kannada and Udupi districts of Karnataka (India), the tree is called Karmara in the native Tulu language. Ebony tree forests which once covered large areas of these districts have shrunk significantly due to rapid urbanization. The wood of ebony is used as firewood, as it can burn even in moist conditions.
As a result of unsustainable harvesting, many species yielding ebony are now considered threatened.