Francois Xavier Tourte invented the modern bow sometime around 1780. His bows are still regarded as the finest ever made, and still inspire modern bowmaking.
The modern bow appeared at the end of the eighteenth-century in the Paris workshops of Francois-Xavier Tourte, and his designs rapidly established themselves as the most versatile for playing all kinds of repertoire, and providing the tools to experiment with violin playing in ways that were unimaginable beforehand. The revolution in composition and playing technique offered by Tourte’s new invention was so radical that G.B. Viotti remarked “Le violon c’est l’archet”, establishing the principle that – more than ever before – it was the way that the bow worked and the technique for playing it that gave a musician their connection to the music they played. Overnight, the huge variety of regional bow designs that had evolved over the eighteenth-century became obsolete. Bausch in Germany, Dodd in England and Niklaus Kittel in Russia all worked under the shadow of Tourte during his lifetime, and the miracle of Tourte’s design – invented when Mozart and Beethoven were active – continues to stand up to the advances in violin technique that evolved through the rise of the Virtuoso from Paganini onwards, and through the increasing demands of every genre of classical music up to the 21st century. Modern bow makers still use Tourte as their inspiration, and the bow has hardly changed since the designs that he settled upon before the dawn of the nineteenth-century.
Weight, Balance and Strength
Weights and measurements often provide a good rule of thumb when selecting a bow or instrument. Generally speaking, a ‘good’ weight will be one of the qualities of a great playing bow. However, the art of bow making relies more on creating a good feel and balance. In fact, balance plays such an important role in how a bow works that it can give a completely different sense of weight than the actual mass of the bow.
The ideal weights are:
58-62 grams for Violin
68-72 grams for Viola
78-82 grams for Violoncello
Many bows by Tourte are ‘underweight’ but still perform brilliantly. Meanwhile, Jacquelene du Pre was one of a legion of cellists who opted for the ‘overweight’ bows of Dodd and Louis Panormo because of their favoured properties. In some cases, light bows can be brought up to weight by adding mass to the lapping and fittings, and surreptitious techniques exist for adding weight to the stick, but these techniques normally disturb the balance of the bow, reducing its playing qualities. In the end, the safest approach to considering a bow for purchase is on the basis of its playing qualities, which – of course, is the basis upon which you would buy it anyway.
Strength of the stick is also an important factor. A bow made from very dense Pernambuco wood will generally have the required stiffness at the required weight, but over a century ago bow makers worked out how to build stiffness and weight into a stick made from wood that was less dense, allowing them to produce bows from previously rejected stocks of wood. Some of these thicker sticks can work wonderfully, but sometimes they remain sufficiently soft and flexible that they have too much bend to be durable orchestral bows. You may find that they give a beautiful sound in your living room, but with the playing pressure needed to compete with woodwind and brass, the bow can bend so much that you are simply grinding the stick along the strings. If your hairs keep breaking about six inches from the frog, its because they keep getting crushed between the string and the stick when you play hard. Its a good indication that your stick is too flexible.
It’s always worth experimenting with bows of different weights. From the late nineteenth-century the finest English and German makers produced ‘chamber music’ bows, which are beautifully balanced but significantly underweight by orchestral standards; it is not uncommon to find such a bow alongside a classic Parisian masterpiece in violin cases of a certain generation. For musicians who are less worried about playing concertos or working in a world-class symphony orchestra, a lighter bow can provide exceptional quality with a substantial discount in the price.
French, English or German
The great Parisian makers are famous for making bows, and are therefore the most sought after and the most expensive, but very fine old English and German bows can provide compelling value for money. Almost all English bows are made for professional use, with the firm of W.E. Hill & Son dominating production for about a century. These are made to different grades of quality, and early bows from before 1920 are especially prized. The Tubbs family also produced exceptional bows that have a strong following amongst professional musicians. Bows by John Dodd, his family and followers can also be superb, but some of them are unexpectedly short. If you can get used to them you can enjoy fantastic value for money, but if you are caught unawares, you may find the bow disappearing from the strings.
The reputation of German bows suffers because the majority of cheap bows for beginners were made there, and the majority of old German bows have little or no value. However Germany has always produced very high quality bows. Heinrich Knopf was one of the very first to imitate Tourte at the beginning of the nineteenth century, and makers such as Albert Nurnberger, H.R. Pfretzschner, Otto Hoyer, and the early members of the Bausch family are amongst the highly prized German makers.
Contemporary bow making has transformed the scene, as the Paris tradition has spread across the globe, meaning that national boundaries no longer have much relevance to defining the quality of bows being produced. France continues to enjoy an enviable tradition in bow making but some of the finest new bows of the French tradition are now made in such places as the UK, Ireland, and the United States.
Gold, Silver or Nickle
Nickle is normally regarded as an inferior and cheaper metal and is associated with inexpensive German or Mirecourt trade bows. However, when it was invented in the 1830s it was regarded as a miracle material and before mass production techniques developed it was more valuable than silver. Bowmakers took to it very quickly because it worked better for making underslides, and it features (often in combination with silver) in some of the finest English and German bows of the 1830s-1840s period.
The majority of bows for professional use are silver mounted, and most makers reserved gold-mounted fittings for their finest work. Fortunately most bow makers worked to these rules, so it is fairly unusual to find gold mounted bows that are below the standard of silver mounted examples by the same maker. However, the choice of mounts tends to be determined by personal standards, as opposed to a universal set of rules so that a silver-mounted bow by a great maker might be significantly better than a gold-mounted bow by a maker of lesser reputation. Sometimes silver-mounted bows can be of ‘gold standard’, such as the tortoiseshell and silver copies of Tourte bows made by Samuel Allen in the 1890s for W.E. Hill & Sons, because the maker was faithfully taking his inspiration from an earlier masterpiece.
Contemporary makers tend to use gold far more than every before, but this is because they increasingly take the view that if a bow isn’t made to ‘gold-standard’ it isn’t worth making, given the threatened nature of Pernambuco wood for bow making, and competition from semi-industrial workshops in making lower grade bows. At this level, the choice of silver or gold tends to be more a question of taste, and the difference in price is a reflection of the cost of materials chosen to make the bow. With cheaper bows however, the choice of material tends to be less disciplined, and a semi-factory may produce bows in gold and silver just to extend the range of products that they sell. In the end, always judge a bow by it’s playing qualities. If the bow is priced fairly by comparison to others with similar properties that play just as well, you are paying the right price.
Ivory, Tortoiseshell & other endangered species
Bows can be a minefield where these are concerned, with parts made from threatened or endangered woods or animal products. Pernambuco and certain types of Ebony are used to make bows, meanwhile elephant ivory, whalebone, lizard skin tortoiseshell and certain kinds of mother-of-pearl all appear on different bows. National and international legislation and conventions are constantly changing with regard to these species. If you are planning to cross borders with your bow, beware of the present state of legislation relating the materials that it is made from.
Investing in Bows
The investment market for musical instruments is a variable one, with different rates of return depending on the desirability of each class of instrument or bow, and condition of the bow having significant implications on its value. It is always worth seeking specific advice if investment opportunity forms part of your motivation for buying.
The more sought-after the bow, the better the investment opportunity has been with Paris-made bows performing consistently and strongly. Some of these, such as Tourte, Grand Adam or Peccatte perform well because of a combination of scarcity, quality and recognition as masterpieces of French bow making. Meanwhile prolific bow makers of the late-19th and early-20th centuries, such as Eugene Sartory or Francois-Nicolas Voirin have done well because they are a known and reliable prospect where it is easy to track an increase in value because of the high number of sales of similar bows over recent years. On one hand, the risks of damage to bows are greater than they are for instruments, but the other side of the coin is that they are cheaper than equivalent instruments. Therefore, if you are confident about storing them safely, they can be an easier way of investing your money.
Generally speaking, examples made in Mirecourt, London or in the major German centers of bow making have tended to perform at more conservative rates, but have consistently increased in value at above-inflation rates. Exceptions always apply.
Many English and German bows are bought and sold without a certificate. In most cases the workshop methods of the makers are sufficiently routine, that they are relatively easy to identify and it only takes a moderate amount of expertise to identify them. Moreover, with values remaining only a step or two ahead of the prices of fine modern work, there is no commercial justification to forging them, although as prices increase over time, this position will eventually change. French bows are a different matter, as the prices justify mis-attribution to more valuable makers or even outright forgery. With makers such as Eugene Sartory, who died in 1946, his bows can survive in such clean condition, that they can be easily copied and forged. Maker’s stamps are easy to forge so that even an honest copy might eventually end up stamped and resold as genuine. Meanwhile, some of the greatest bow makers from Tourte, through Grand Adam to Peccatte routinely left their bows unstamped, so that it is only through through the judgements of experts that they can be identified. Buying an unstamped bow on the assumption that it is a Tourte would be extremely risky business, without the assurance of a trusted certificate of expertise.
Bows are incredibly fragile objects that can get damaged easily. Since the late nineteenth-century, restorers have employed a multitude of techniques for restoring them. Traditionally, a restored bow has been worth a small fraction of the price it would sell for in undamaged state, following arguments that restorations can affect the playing qualities of the stick, and that once broken there is always the risk that the repair will fail. However, with the rise in prices for fine old bows alongside the development of more reliable restoration techniques, these bows have become an increasingly viable prospect for musicians looking for playability at an affordable price.
It is always important to ask for a condition report when buying a bow. If you are buying a repaired bow, it makes sense to know exactly what affects the price, and how reliable the repairs are. Generally speaking, it is inadvisable to invest in bows with much more than light playing wear, but if they have straightforward issues such as replaced fittings on a fine stick, they can become good opportunities. If you are paying a full price for an investment-quality bow in fine condition it is best to have the reassurance that an expert with more experienced eyes than your own has checked over the bow and can validate it’s worth.
For Further Information
There are several key reference books that are necessary for developing an expert knowledge in the field, but for musicians we recommend Gabriel Schaff’s “The Essential Guide to Bows of the Violin Family”. For roughly the price of a re-hair the book navigates the world of fine bows with the eye of the author who has the experience of a professional musician and an inside and up-to-date knowledge of the market. It is available from Amazon, and we normally have a few copies for sale. If you are interested in buying a new bow, please get in touch. I’ll be delighted to talk through the options available for you.
… and lastly.
This article is intended for general information only, with the hope of giving you a good idea of the opportunities that are out there. Nothing can substitute trying bows and asking for direct and specific advice. I look forward to making this available when you visit my showroom.