Objects of desire

A beautiful bow has a seductive power far beyond its practical purpose. Sarah Mnatzaganian asks top bow makers and collectors about the thrill of pernambuco.

The latest sale of a Strad at auction regularly attracts national news coverage. But what of the humble, voiceless bow? They are certainly attractive with their elegant pernambuco sticks, lush silver lapping, bright mother-of-pearl and tactile ivory and ebony. But surely a bow is, at best, a reliable and indispensable friend, an essential tool. Would anyone dare to describe a bow as an object of passion? Can a bow really be sexy?

‘Of course,’ declares Bernard Millant, maker, collector and world expert on French bows. He regards non bow-fanciers as at least 200 years out of date. ‘Before 1800, musicians considered bows mere accessories. But with the arrival of more sophisticated music, bow makers developed stronger, more responsive bows and players realised that they were just as significant as instruments in producing a better sound. Nowadays, musicians are constantly on the look out for another bow to improve their performance.’

Perhaps bows are sexy because they play hard to get? Parisian bow expert Jean-François Raffin is persuasive on that point. ‘I find bows more exciting and even more important than instruments because they are much more difficult for the player to find. An instrument can be adapted to the player through its set-up, but a bow must be a perfect match otherwise it could damage the sound of the instrument or the technique of the player.’

Morgan Andersen, a bow maker based in Washington State, US, is fascinated by the influence of different bows on an instrument’s sound. ‘You might think a bow was a simple thing, just a stick of wood with a few parts holding the hair onto it. But a bow drastically affects the sound of an instrument and you can’t explain it with a single factor such as the state of the hair or how hard or flexible the stick is. One bow will make an instrument sound warmer, another more focused. An ill-matched bow can exaggerate surface noise or make the sound brittle, edgy or fuzzy.’

Even if the bow is a good match with the instrument, it must also suit a player’s personality and playing style. ‘Different players are looking for different things,’ Andersen explains. ‘Some crank their bows up very tight, others put hardly any tension on them; some push very vigorously and others try to relax the hand as much as they can and let the bow itself pull the sound out of the instrument.’

For Millant, the bow is the most individual element in a perfect triangular relationship: ‘A bow is more personal to the player than any instrument. It is a prolongation of your right arm, a part of you, and if you get it right, there is a happy marriage between three parties: the player, the instrument and the bow.’

What gives each bow its unique playing qualities? I put this question to some of the greatest contemporary bow makers and they all gave the same answer: pernambuco.

Peter Oxley, a bow maker based in Oxford, UK, relishes the infinite variety and capriciousness of pernambuco. ‘The wood is so variable that no two blanks will have the same strength, flexibility or colour, even if they are cut from the same plank. So you develop a close relationship with each and every bow blank salvaged from the rare areas of good wood between the splits, shakes, rot and worm holes which always bedevil the very best trees.’

‘Each time I’m I looking for wood which will respond in the hand like a fine Tourte: wood which is dense and strong enough to be planed down to a very thin gauge while still retaining its resilience and elasticity. When a stick is right, there is still a certain fight in the wood; it isn’t stiff but it’s always wanting to spring back. Wood like this entices the richest harmonics out of the instrument and the resulting slenderness is beautiful to look at.’

What attracts bow makers to work with such an unpredictable material? ‘It’s a truly sensual process,’ confides David Samuels, bow maker in Houston, Texas. ‘All my senses come into play as I select the wood for its beauty, vibration, sound and feel. Even its smell and taste give me more insight into the way it will perform.’

When making to commission, Samuels chooses the raw material carefully. ‘When I’m selecting a bow blank for a particular customer, I will flex, swing and twirl it in my fingers to assess its strength and response and I’ll tap it to sense how it vibrates. If the wood is too responsive it will be difficult for the player to control. If the bow is stiff it can choke the string but if it is designed well, the musician will feel the bow grab the string and hold it from end to end as soon as he or she begins to play.’

Andersen cheerfully admits that pernambuco sometimes defies him: ‘Once the wood is on the bench and I’m planing, flexing, weighing and feeling its response change as I work, the wood itself starts to dictate to me what it wants to be. I might get to the middle of a project and realise that this bow isn’t going to be right for the customer I was making it for, but my job is to turn that piece of wood into the best bow it can be. The customer will just have to wait a little longer.’

Roy Quade, Canadian bow maker, adores bows for the beauty of their materials and for the precision of the making process. ‘When I am finishing a bow, I set the plane so fine that the wood comes away in tiny, almost transparent shavings. My kids call it angel hair.’

From intense responses like these it’s easy to understand the physical attraction bows hold for makers but what about players and collectors? Is bow beauty in the eye of the beholder, or are there ways to appreciate a good bow without actually playing it?

Tim Ingles, head of the musical instrument department at Sotheby’s in London, acknowledges the challenge facing would-be bow fanciers. ‘It takes a special taste to appreciate bows. They are small, functional and more difficult to comprehend than instruments. As auctioneers, we can admire fabulous gold fittings and celebrity names but when our expert, Bill Watson, looks at a bow he sees how it was made, even how it was held as it was cut.’

Where can the aspiring bow lover start? Andersen is sympathetic: ‘When you start looking at bows they all tend to look very alike, as if you were an alien from outer space trying to tell the difference between one human face and another. But it’s really not that scary or difficult. Once you get to know a few bows well, you start to be able to distinguish between them until you are able to recognise hundreds, even thousands, as individuals. Handling bows in shops is the best way to learn, but there are also some magnificent books around, such as Bernard Millant’s L’Archet, which photographs each bow from several different angles.’

The best way to assess the workmanship and beauty of a bow is by looking closely at the head and the frog, which are the maker’s main vehicle for self-expression. ‘A finely made bow will look organic and natural,’ Oxley explains. ‘All the curves at both the head and the frog have to resolve together naturally and smoothly, which is a huge challenge to the maker. The amounts of wood available for styling are miniscule; the difference in weight between a ‘masculine’ Peccatte head and a ‘feminine’ Voirin is perhaps half a gram.’

Assessing the quality of bow wood is a lifelong task for bow makers, but Quade encourages bow lovers to look into the pernambuco at the head, checking for transparency and looking out for a little flash as the head moves in the light. Samuels hunts all over the world for his wood, ivory, ebony, leather, silver, gold and mother of pearl. ‘There’s no magic formula which will teach you to appreciate bows, but you can ask yourself, ‘Am I attracted to this bow? Does it look and feel beautiful? Is the ebony polished to a fine sheen? Does the pearl have a good colour or a beautiful reflection? Does the silver have a warm, beautiful finish?

‘What attracts me to a bow?’ Raffin reflects. ‘Well, the shape, the flexibility and beauty of the wood, but it’s more than that. Sometimes you just look at a bow and fall in love; it’s a very personal feeling and hard to explain.’ Paul Childs, New York dealer and expert on French bows is just as susceptible: ‘The occasional bow will, just by its looks, absolutely stagger the true bow lover, so much so that you’re glad to be sitting down the first time it comes into your hands.

Can a bow ever be compared in monetary value to an instrument? Childs doubts it: ‘I don’t believe we will ever see the time when a great Tourte bow will sell for the same as a great Stradivari violin. And it shouldn’t. Stradivari made around sixteen instruments a year while Tourte made perhaps three bows a week.’ Raffin concurs: ‘Average quality bows and instruments have about the same value but at the very highest level, the finest gold mounted tortoiseshell Tourte will be worth only 10% of the price of the rarest Stradivari.’

Bows are valued for their playing qualities and for their sheer physical beauty, but they also make attractive investments, Ingles admits: ‘Great bows aren’t just functional; they are also works of art and their value is related to both. The presence of collectors definitely increases prices and also raises awareness of the value of bows beyond their function as players’ tools.’

‘It’s easy to make money with bows,’ mourns Raffin, ‘They have increased in value between 20 and 30 per cent over the past five years, they take up very little space and therefore many people want to invest in bows. This is making old bows even harder for players to afford.’

Why are old bows so much more valuable than their modern contemporaries? Is their celebrity appeal unfounded, or do they deserve their cult status in the eyes of players and collectors? Oxley is torn: ‘The resilience of bow wood certainly seems to improve with age and gives a toughness which you can’t get in fresh wood. But I think the spectacular value attached to old bows is out of proportion with their playing qualities and is often driven by fashion, such as the vogue for Sartory bows which has developed over the last decade.’

Millant, however, believes that old, great bows deserve their status. ‘Musicians like old bows because the passage of time changes the wood, crystallising the resin in the same sort of miracle which happens over time with maple and pine.’

Andersen points out that not all old bows are great, even though they are highly priced. ‘Old bows in the same price range as a good contemporary bow were often only second-rate when they were made, but we are blinded to that by the fact that they are now prized as antiques.’

The seductive appeal of an old and valuable bow can prove irresistible to collectors and players alike. ‘How the bow plays is of relatively minor significance where price is concerned,’ Andersen reflects ironically. ‘I’ve seen a couple of Tourte cello bows which were in mint condition and therefore worth a fortune, but it was obvious that they were pristine because nobody had wanted to play them. One weighed only 67 grams!’

Oxley is equally cautious: Musicians shouldn’t be swayed by fashion and torture themselves into buying a big name. Try a bow for its playing qualities first. Look at the bow as an individual and get a sense of how it has been made.’ Will it be worth the effort? Almost certainly, says Millant. Players with a bow-shaped hole in their life should get collecting, Millant advises. ‘Musicians usually need at least two bows; once you have three you want a still better one and, voilà, you have become a collector!’

Copyright: Sarah Mnatzaganian 2002 Published in the Strad Magazine August 2002

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