Most guitarists give little thought to their guitar’s rosette, that multi-colored inlaid design that encircles the soundhole. After all, it doesn’t really contribute to the guitar’s performance (although it actually does help inhibit top cracking). Nevertheless, those tiny pieces of inlay lying right beneath your fingertips tie our guitars both to their early ancestors and to the sweep of history that created the instrument in the first place.
Guitar rosettes derive their name (and loosely their design inspiration) from ancient decorative carvings of flowers. They are mosaics made using inlay techniques invented by the earliest civilizations. And, they made their way onto guitars following the Islamic conquests of the 7th and 8th centuries AD. This is a lot to unpack!
The Name of the Rose
Rosettes began as more-or-less round, stylized carvings of flowers employed as decoration in architecture, monuments, sculpture, and innumerable smaller applications. Rosettes were being made 5,000 years ago in Mesopotamia and were common in early Egypt, Minoan Crete, and ancient Greece. Those square pieces of molding with carved circular relief patterns inside door and window corners, even the decorative round plate that a door-knob spindle fits into, are simplified descendants of the prehistoric rosette.
Indeed, floral rosettes appeared very early on stringed instruments. In 1929, archaeologists excavating graves in the Sumerian city of Ur (near Baghdad), discovered three magnificent lyres dating to around 2600–2500 BC. The “golden lyre” housed in the National Museum of Iraq sported a gold-plated bull’s head on the front of the resonator box and was drenched in colored inlays awfully similar to what would turn up on guitar rosettes a few thousand years later. There, on the end of the yoke, or cross-bar, was inlaid a beautiful abstract rosette in blue, orange, and white.
The Art of Decoration
Mosaics enter the archaeological record about the same time as rosettes, and in the same part of the world. The earliest temples with mosaics date to around 3000 BC. A mosaic is a design made by juxtaposing variously colored little squares (called tesserae, or “dice, cubes”) to achieve the desired pattern, much like the techniques used by Impressionist painters. Mosaics often employ glass or ceramics but can be made of anything. Mosaics are often representational pictures—people (like a saint or mythological being), animals, plants, places—but can also be abstract or geometric. Mosaics are often applied to surfaces with adhesive (floor, wall, ceiling), but they can also be inlaid.
The art of inlaying is most commonly done on a wood base, but it can also be done on many other materials, including stone, bone, or metal, etc. Inlaying in metal was known throughout the ancient world, but the inlaying of gold and silver into oxidized steel was perfected in Damascus, Syria, around the time of Christ, where it was called “damascening,” or “damascene.”
According to 19th century German scholars, damascene was also known by the Arabic term “tausi.” Over time, tausi became distinguished from damascene, with tausi signifying inlay in a wood base, damascene remaining inlay in metal. These Middle-Eastern techniques were carried across North Africa beginning with the Islamic conquests of the 7th century AD. At some point after the Moors and Arabs took over Spain (711 AD), the word “tausi” morphed into “tarsi” in Muslim Andalusia (“taracea” in Christian Spain, “tarsia” in Italy), and eventually the art of wood inlay became known as “intarsia.”
(Note: The distinction between intarsia and marquetry is somewhat confusing. Even though both processes often employ similar techniques and materials in their construction, intarsia is inlaid into a surface (like a guitar rosette) and marquetry is overlaid over the base surface (as on a desktop, door, or floor), like a veneer. This is confused further by the fact that, in modern times, “intarsia” has come to mean assembling and shaping pieces of different woods of varying thicknesses to create 3-D puzzle images of subjects, such as a deer or a sailboat or whatever. If you’ve always considered your guitar’s rosette to be “marquetry,” everyone will know what you mean and there’s probably no reason to change your thinking.)
Intarsia definitely was present in Spain sometime after 711 (Toledo became a major center of damascene). It almost certainly entered Sicily, as well. From 831–1091 the island was ruled by Muslims as the Emirate of Sicily, after which it was governed by the Norman King Roger I and his successors, “free thinkers” who kept elephants and encouraged Islamic art, music, and scholarship. In 1282 Sicily fell under the rule of Peter III, King of Aragon (in Spain). In any case, by the late 13th Century, the center of European intarsia was acknowledged to be Siena, Italy, a little north of Rome.
While the uses of intarsia—from interior (and exterior) decoration to decorative objects (e.g., furniture, boxes)—were similar in both Christian and Islamic domains, the aesthetics were markedly different. Intarsia borders (see below) were almost universal. But Christian artists were free to create representational images, that is, “pictures” of people, places, and things. The most elaborate designs employed trompe l’oeil techniques (e.g., shadows, perspective, vanishing points) to create the illusion of “reality.” Islamic artists, especially as religious law evolved, were forbidden to represent or portray realism in nature or living things, resulting in the profusion of geometric shapes, abstract floral patterns, and calligraphy.
Enter the Lute
Along with intarsia and damascene, the Arabs also brought lutes westward. This occurred, fortunately for guitar lovers, before Islamic prohibitions against popular music came into being. Long-necked lutes were historically popular in the Arabian Peninsula, especially played by singing girls. However, around the year 600, a few decades prior to the advent of Islam, the short-necked Persian lute—the barbat (carved from a single piece of wood)—was imported into Mecca, quickly replacing the older lutes, and made its way across North Africa into Spain. There are no certain surviving images, so we really don’t know whether barbats had soundholes or not, much less rosettes.
In 750, Islam’s original Arabian-influenced ruling clan, the Umayyads, of Damascus, were murdered at a banquet given by a rival family, the Abbasids. The new leaders completed a new capital (Baghdad) in 766 and an era of Persian influence commenced. Almost concurrent with the shift in power and capitals, the lutenist Mansur Zalzal al Darib (d. 791) introduced Baghdad to a new form of the lute called the ‘ud al-shabbat—the “wonderful lute”—that was shaped like a fish known as a “shabbat.” This became the modern l’oud (sometimes rendered l’ud, ud, or oud). At some point, if not from the outset, these four-course l’ouds featured soundholes, often with a perforated web of wood spanning the opening—a “rosette.”
The Reign in Spain
Several Umayyads survived the massacre and soon established a second flourishing caliphate in Cordova, Andalusia, Spain. In 822, the great lute virtuoso Abu l-Hasan Ali Ibn Nafi (or Ziryab, 789–857) relocated to Cordova. If introducing Europe to forks, asparagus, multi-course meals, bangs, and seasonal fashion wasn’t enough(!), Ziryab (nicknamed “Blackbird”) also brought the new shabbat l’oud, adding a fifth course to it along the way.
By the 13th century these Arabic (or really Persian) lutes, like intarsia, had begun to migrate into the rest of Europe, becoming the Renaissance lute. Throughout the period of the lute’s popularity in the Baroque, its elaborate decorative rosette reflected its Islamic heritage, although over time it grew increasingly more “organic” in design, also recalling its ancient floral origins.
The Guitar Rosette
The relationship between l’ouds, vihuelas, and guitars in Spain is extraordinarily complex and remains to be fully elucidated; there’s no space to weigh-in here. In any case, guitars probably emerged in northern (Christian) Spain around 1000 AD. No known physical examples from before the 15th century have survived, and artistic representations are notoriously unreliable guides. However, by the end of the Renaissance in the 16th century, guitars had also followed lutes out of Spain into the rest of Europe. Like their pear-shaped, bowl-backed cousins, they were often given carved rosettes. Some rosettes were even built in multiple descending levels of parchment, making them almost reverse 3-D images of the old carved rose.
As Europe moved into the Baroque period, artists (including luthiers) increasingly indulged themselves in embellishment and ornamentation. Rosette decoration on guitars began to spill over beyond the carved soundhole into the area surrounding it. These flourishes could be simple carved or inlaid rings or complex, magnificent floral patterns of inlaid mother-of-pearl. By the 17th century (at least), guitar soundhole surrounds could also include a whole range of inlaid intarsia mosaics.
Guitars continued to grow in popularity while lutes receded into history, remembered mainly in the West in the various forms of Spanish lauds, bandurrias, Italian mandolins, and certain citterns. The new-found popularity of guitars put them in the hands of more ordinary folks who couldn’t afford carved rosettes, fancy pearl, or even mosaic soundhole inlays, and through much of the 19th century, simpler ring rosettes predominated. However, toward the end of the 1800s, both inlaid pearl and intarsia mosaic rosettes began to see a resurgence.
By the early 20th century, some rosette styles had geographic references. For example, small pearl “teeth” (or triangles) typified Valencian guitars, which were heavily exported throughout the Spanish Empire, including especially to Mexico, where luthiers adopted the designs. While many luthiers approached rosettes as individual works of art—they require great patience and skill to construct—others, such as the José Ramirez house—treated them as a form of branding, standardizing their distinctive “S”-curve rosette designs and side-slotted, center-pointed headstocks in order to easily identify (and promote) their guitars.
Back to the Future
Today, the tools for designing mosaic guitar rosettes are far more sophisticated than the guitar-makers of a century ago could have imagined. A variety of computer software programs—many of them free—are now available to help you plan both the overall design and the complex tiles and slices needed to create them. Just click on a few tools to alter the pattern or the colors. It’s way less work than using graph paper and colored pencils and no doubt lots more fun.
Where there’s software, can machines be far behind? For makers who produce guitars in batches, CNC machines and laser cutters can precisely and cost-effectively cut channels for rosettes and purfling. They also can be used to make exotically shaped components if the design is more “modern.” While advanced cutting machines may be employed in mass-producing guitar rosettes, assembling the bundles of colored wood used for traditional rosette designs is still a manual task
There are many individual luthiers who still hand-craft their own rosettes, especially if they only produce guitars one or a few at a time. The cost and steep learning curve associated with CNC cutting machines is undoubtedly prohibitive to many. However, increasingly third-party rosettes—often of stunning beauty and complexity—made in specialty shops can be used to make a guitar beautiful with a fraction of the effort and cost. Yet even despite this modernized methodology, the fact remains that as every rest stroke nears the rosette, your fingers are still just millimeters away from millennia of guitar history!
Guitar Rosette Construction
There are numerous approaches to creating classical guitar rosettes, and surveying all the variations is beyond our scope here. This overview is more conceptual than tutorial.
There are basically three general areas of a modern rosette: an inner ring around the soundhole, the central decorative mosaic, and an outer ring, usually mirroring the inner ring. Additional strips of simple line purfling may separate these areas. The peripheral rings are often made of diagonally laid veneer strips, herringbone, or checkerboard, etc.
The central mosaic is the most challenging part of rosette design and execution. First comes the mosaic design itself, usually done on graph paper. The squares are filled in to create the curves, angles, and colors for a roughly square “tile” of the rosette. This will be the basic repeating element of the mosaic and it can be beguilingly simple or mind-bogglingly complex.
Appropriately colored pieces of veneer wood are scraped to a regular thickness of about 0.5mm. Then these veneers are stacked up corresponding to each vertical column of squares in the design grid, glued, and clamped. Oriented just like the appropriate vertical design column, thin length-wise slices are cut off to make 0.5mm-thick planks whose end-view will match each corresponding vertical design column. There will be a different plank for every succeeding vertical column in the graph design.
Next, the planks matching each vertical design column are glued together to make a “log” (or “loaf”). The end-grain of the assembled log should now match the graph-paper design. Because a rosette is ultimately round, the side closest to the soundhole needs to be slightly narrower than the outside, like a slice of pizza. Some luthiers shave to get this taper, others apply stronger clamping pressure to that edge to compress it while gluing.
The final log is then sliced parallel to the end-grain (think bread slices) to get individual tiles that will be inlaid to make the mosaic design.
Some luthiers employ a jig and construct the entire layered rosette before inlaying it into a recess cut into the guitar’s top. Others construct them layer by layer right into the top itself. Once glued and dried, the inlay is scraped level with the guitar top etvoila, a classical-guitar rosette!
Here is a video demonstration of the making of a rosette. Of course, materials and techniques can vary, but it is at least illustrative of one luthier’s process—and it’s accompanied by some great music!