The Martin D-45 and Other Pearl-Bordered Beauties
The pearl-trimmed Martin D-45 is the culmination of an evolution that began in the earliest days of the company’s history. Like a lot of both internal and external design features on our beloved flat-top guitars, pearl bordering first appeared on deluxe models by C. F. Martin Sr., and he was putting pearl around the top edge, as well as around the soundhole, before 1840. But rather than a continuous narrow pearl border, Martin’s earliest use of pearl around the top featured large alternating half circles of abalone and white mother-of-pearl. At first glance this would appear to be a lot of extra effort, but Martin took a shortcut by purchasing pearl button blanks from a nearby New York City supply house for the garment trade. By cutting the pearl circles in half Martin achieved a highly decorated perimeter for the top of his most expensive models, but very few were made. Pearl decorations around the soundhole were much more common.
We’re not certain when Martin first began using a narrow continuous band of abalone, rather than a string of pearl shapes, but pearl rosettes turn up quite often on higher Martin models from the 1840s. Fancy wood marquetry was still preferred for the top border, but this changed in the early 1850s with some “Presentation Grade” models such as one made for the Crystal Palace Exhibition in New York City. Martin didn’t have a specific model code for his deluxe guitars yet, but surviving ledgers have descriptions of each guitar and “pearl around the hoop” was how he indicated a pearl-bordered top. Well before the Civil War, Martin was selling several pearl-bordered guitars every year, and they weren’t cheap. The wholesale cost for a Martin with pearl around the top edge, as well as a pearl soundhole rosette, was 42 dollars, and as that wholesale price later became the model code Martin’s Style 42 was born.
When Martin’s first published price list came out in the early 1870s the pearl-bordered 2-42 was the most expensive standard model. While size 2 was quite small and intended for women, Martin’s male customers soon began clamoring for larger versions. Except for the subtle glitter from the narrow band of pearl these were still conservatively decorated guitars by today’s standards as both the headstock and the fingerboard had no pearl inlays at all. This changed in the 1890s when America’s mandolin craze began, as mandolins had always been given far more decoration that you would find on guitars. Martin began offering Italian-style (bowl-back) mandolins in in the mid-1890s and the more deluxe versions were lavishly decorated. The pearl position markers Martin used on its mandolins were also added to Martin guitars as well and by 1896 a pattern of delicate pearl designs, several resembling stylized snowflakes, were added to the fingerboard of Style 42 models. A variation of this same inlay pattern is still in use today, not only by C. F. Martin but by contemporary competitors who list “Style 42 snowflakes” as an optional inlay on their price list.
By 1900 American guitars were becoming more and more highly decorated and Style 42’s role as Martin’s flagship model didn’t last much longer. Some “00-42 Special” models were made in 1902 that had additional pearl bordering on the sides and back, plus an elaborate inlay on the headstock. By 1904 these models were listed in Martin’s catalog as Style 45, the most expensive guitars Martin offered. The legendary Style 45 would hold that position for the next forty years, but 45 was a style, not a guitar, and while the pearl decorations remained much the same the Martin guitars given all that subtle glitter soon went through a number of significant changes.
Before 1916 virtually all Martin guitars were intended for use with gut strings, but the Hawaiian music craze that swept the country in the late ‘teens quickly changed that. Along with its new ukuleles Martin began offering Hawaiian guitars which were strung with steel strings played with a metal bar, like a Dobro. Martin’s transition to steel strings for regular playing style began with lower models but by the late 1920s even most Style 45 models were made for steel strings. Style 45 got a huge boost in visibility when country music star Jimmie Rodgers ordered a custom 000-45 in 1928 that would change how Martin’s highest model was viewed for years to come. Rodgers wanted his name in large pearl letters on the fingerboard and a majority of the photos of him taken before his death in 1933 show this guitar. The huge influence “The Father of Country Music” had on popular singers of the 1930s resulted in many Style 45 Martins with names on the fretboard. The most famous of these singers was Gene Autry who also had the distinction of ordering the first D-45, a guitar that glittered on millions of movie screens in the many westerns starring The Singing Cowboy.
All Martin’s pearl-bordered models were discontinued in the early 1940s because of World War II restrictions. Despite the growing demand in the 1950s and ’60s for the return of the legendary D-45, Martin didn’t reissue its flagship model until 1968. Reissues of different versions of the D-45, and other pearl-bordered models like the 000-42, have been in steady demand every since.