A plank of Indian rosewood speaks of time suspended. The contrasting blond and chocolate and grey whorls of rosewood remind us of prehistoric, primal shapes — like the multicoloured rock strata of a dramatic canyon or the unimaginably colossal storms of Jupiter. The sinuous grain of the wood implies majestic motion, paused in permanent stillness between the straight lines of a piece of contemporary furniture.
Every tree strives outward and upward as it grows, leaving the traces of its story behind in its rings. Yet few varieties of wood broadcast their biography with the same forceful clarity as Indian rosewood. Contrasting hues reflect two distinct parts of the trunk: the inner, older heartwood and the outer sapwood, which represent the younger parts of the tree. In Indian rosewood, the sapwood's pale straw contrasts starkly against the heartwood's deep browns, which are often infused with undertones of orange, honey or grey. The edges separating the realms of light and dark twist in random and fascinating ways, like alien shores.
Artemano finds its rosewood in Bihar and Bangalore, India. Its chosen variety goes by many names, including Indian yellow rosewood, sisu and sheesham; botanists know the species as dalbergia sissoo. The rosewood family to which the tree belongs is large and straddles the planet around the middle; Indian rosewood has relatives all over Asia, South America and Africa. Rosewood is slow-growing, but is plentiful in the Indian state of Rajasthan (meanwhile, Artemano's suppliers replace every tree felled with a tree planted, creating a virtuous circle of sustainable harvest).
Indian rosewood may even have earned its mention in the Buddhist scriptures thanks to its plentitude in Northwestern India. In the Simsapa Sutra, the Buddha grabs a handful of leaves among the countless millions in a forest in order to illustrate to his followers how little knowledge he has shared with them compared with how much there is to know. Scholars have suggested the abundant "simsapa" tree mentioned could have been the ancient name for sheesham in the Pali language.
As common as it is, Indian rosewood is an easy wood to love, and impossible to take for granted. A passion for wood is something like a fondness for wine. Both involve taking the natural produce of the Earth and shaping it into something beautiful for human use and appreciation. Like the Sangiovese grape of Italy, which can form the backbone of everything from a prized bottle of Brunello to a humble but reliable Chianti, Indian rosewood is a trusty workhorse, but one whose nature is infused with pride and complexity. It's equally attuned to lofty and workaday purposes. Even when it's used as a building material, it's interesting to note that it's employed where it can be seen and appreciate — it tends to end up as floorboards, window frames and support beams. That makes sense: Who could imagine hiding a beam of rosewood behind plaster?
To prepare it for a future in Canada's temperate climate, Artemano must season (that is, dry) the wood in India for an extra-long period of time. This practice is the result of hard-won experience working with the wood and its properties. The wood will still open and crack just a little as it ages. Yet the beauty only deepens as its imperfections surface; like the creases of an elder craftsman's hand, the grooves confer dignity on the piece and serve as a testament to years of service.
Winemakers working with a particular variety of grape can enhance, magnify and manipulate the properties of a grape, but it will only express itself within the bounds of its essential personality. It's the same for craftspeople who transform wood into furniture. While it is heavy and powerful, Indian rosewood is also known to be generous. It has a mind of its own, but it co-operates. Or to be more accurate, it collaborates.
This truth becomes evident when the craftsperson stains a piece of rosewood. The heartwood and sapwood differ not only in their colour, but in their density as well. The light and dark islands absorb the stain with differing enthusiasm and to differing depths, each region interacting with the stain in its own way. Artemano's much-loved olive stain, for example, is a result of a happy accident — if you try to stain Indian rosewood dark grey, it offers back a green hue that warms and softens the atmosphere around it. It's as if the wood has learned never to mask its signature waves and islands, but rather to insist on letting their natural beauty glow through. What's not to love about a wood that gives us more than we expected, more than we ever asked of it?