What justifies the price of a expensive french bow?

June 21, 2015 at 04:14 AM · This seems like a pointless question in some ways. Obviously, most people would only be willing pay 20k+ for a bow if it is of exceptional quality. Having not yet tried any of these bows before, I've heard of various musicians rave about them.

I've done some research just out of curiosity, and realized that most of these bows were made 200-300 years ago, and that these bows were considered innovations at the time. If bow making is truly a progressive craft, would it not make sense that modern bow makers have more insight regarding what it takes to make a exceptional bow? Also, the fact that these bows have been played on for so many years might mean that they are worn out. However the price still suggests that these bows are of high quality.

There are many professional musicians on this board, so I'm sure some of you guys have highly expensive bows. If any of you guys own a french bow, I'm curious about what types of qualities you liked about it when you purchased it. Also, I've heard of people who found very nice bows for low prices too after trying out many bows. It would just to be nice to hear what people have to say on this subject, even if you don't know much about it. Thanks!

Replies

June 21, 2015 at 06:10 AM · Well Shawn, I have not got a French bow. (I do have friends with expensive £20,000 bows)

As it happens I've just bought a brand new modern bow made in 2015 by a top British bow maker. The person selling it to me also had those expensive French bows, but he said, why bother, the new bow was every bit as good.

It's the collectors who push the price up, and I've had a beautifully made Fleur de Lisle octagonal gold mounted bow which fetched a good price at Sotherby's many years ago but which I had hardly used as it was not a great playing bow. So a collector bought it possibly also as an investment.

The old antique bows were mostly all made in the 19C and early 20C. (Since Tourte developed the modern bow).

I was trying fiddles in a well known dealer here in London about two years ago and I realised the bow they had given me to use was extremely good. I looked at the label dangling on it. £3,500 and it was a Hill bow of the upper quality. (The stamp on the stick tells you how highly Hill's regarded a particular bow).

In the 1950/60's you could buy them for £25 or less. (I wish I had). Oistrakh used to buy several at a time from French dealers in Paris and take back to Russia. A good Hill's bow in 1960 was about £20 - the same bow now £3,000 - £4,000

A good playing bow can be anything from £1,000 to £5,000 depending on your pocket.

Apparently Perlmann has two of the bows I have just bought, and so have other well known soloists. (Not that it means that much, as two of the bows I tried by the same maker were not suitable for me. Each bow is a very personal choice).

June 21, 2015 at 02:38 PM · I own a Joseph Voirin bow, which I bought >20 years ago because (1) it plays extremely well, (2) it makes my violin sound amazing, and (3) it is a good investment. I use it for solo recitals, chamber music, and the occasional symphony concert if there isn't any col legno, especially if we are playing Mozart or Haydn. Most of the time I use a carbon fiber bow (a JonPaul Avanti) in order to avoid beating up my Voirin.

When I retire, my hope is to sell the bow for a significant amount.

I have the use of a very good modern American bow and it is a nice bow, but the difference between it and my Voirin is like the difference between a Honda and a Porsche.

June 21, 2015 at 02:46 PM · Does the Avanti feel like a Toyota Corolla then? :)

June 21, 2015 at 05:34 PM · I have a Sartory which I bought several years ago.

Initially I didn't like it that much, as Sartories take some time to get used to. After the initial trial period that I really got used to it, it proved to be an excellent playing stick that will do anything asked from it and the sound it produces is just amazing. I use it for solo work exclusively.

I own an F.N.Voirin which is much more flexible and lighter,but the balance point is such that it doesn't give you the impression that is overly light and still makes a great sound also does everything asked from it. This is used for Mozart. My third bow, a truly amazing C.N.Bazin 62.3gr,made for Simon FR. and midway between the Sartory and Viorin regarding strength. It also produces a great sound and performs flawlessly everything. This Bazin if good for any period of music, be it Brahms, Tchaikovsky, mozart or modern. No col-legno though with this bow. It is an exceptional Bazin, unlike any other I have seen in terms of construction and attention to detail. It plays fantastically well, on par with my other French bows.

My last pernambucco bow is an excellent Knopf. A strong stick with a good sound and good overall qualities.

Now the difference between between my French and German bows is that while the French can be strong sticks, they have a certain flexibility incorporated into the strength that goes one step further in every thing you do compared to a good German bow. A German bow will play a good staccato, spiccato stroke, but a good French will sink into the string producing a more juicy stroke.

The difference in culinary terms is having roast beef without the gravy and the French with it. Much more satisfying, although if one is hungry, roast beef is a welcome solution to the need for food.

I also have 2 codabows that I exclusively use in the orchestra and I don't care if col-legno is called for, or hitting the stand with them to applaud a soloist or a conductor.

June 21, 2015 at 08:41 PM · The comparison of a honda to a porsche is interesting. Mary Ellen, have you tried other bows that had a similar quality to your french bow, but was a substantially lower price?

June 22, 2015 at 02:16 AM · There are certainly modern bowmakers making great bows, but the pernambucco they're working with is generally of inferior to quality to what was available a century ago. (Acid rain, etc. has been awful for pernambucco supplies.)

June 22, 2015 at 06:37 AM · I have a Honda and they are very nice car to drive etc. I understand that Porches are awful to drive.

i would say my new modern bow is a Rolls Royce.

I have a friend with a very expensive French bow probably worth many thousands but she doesn't like it or use it.

June 22, 2015 at 07:23 AM · Only once was I tempted to try buying a vintage French violin bow.

Some 25-odd years ago I spotted a nice one in an auction estimated at £3,000. I sold a good English stick to help fund the purchase. But then the bow in the auction sold for £34,000.

Guess someone must have thought it was a Peccatte.

June 22, 2015 at 05:52 PM · Great topic! I wonder how much of the price of an antique bow is condition and how much is playability? Of course I understand provenance counts for some of the price too.

What if I have two bows by the same maker but one has a more attractive curl in the grain or a nicer "mottled" look ?Do looks have a bearing on the price?

June 22, 2015 at 07:20 PM · One would think that a bow made in this day and age would be of a much higher quality. Think of how much humanity has progressed in the past century alone - Airplanes, computers, iphones, various medical advancements, the internet - yet many top soloists would still prefer these bows made 200 years ago.

It would be nice to know whether these french bow makers were just exceptional craftsmen, and that much of their skill has been lost through generations, that there has been some kind of lost knowledge that they carried with them to their gravestones.

The alternative: that bows aren't actually substantially better than in modern times(or what Lydia suggested - that the old makers had better materials to work with). By some sort of logic, even if these expensive old bows are equally as good as ones made by modern makers, that would still be exceptional. However, I'm getting an impression from this thread that it's not necessarily definitive whether or not the modern bows are even on the same level as these old bows.

I still remember the first time I picked up a violin and a bow. I hardly paid any attention to the ladder at the time - it was just a stick to me. How can a stick be so complicated?

June 23, 2015 at 12:04 AM · Any bow I have ever played that was of comparable quality to my Voirin has also been of comparable or greater value.

I would describe my JonPaul Avanti as a Hyundai. ;-)

It's hard to put into words the differences between the fine modern American bow which I have the use of (it isn't mine) and my Voirin. The American bow is very good but there is a subtlety to my Voirin that I have only ever experienced with other old French bows.

June 23, 2015 at 01:42 AM · I have an Otto Wunderlich viola bow which is worth a few thousands. I have a modern Brazilian bow for which I paid $500 several years ago. The antique Wonderlich bow draws a smooth and rich sound but doesn't respond as quickly as the modern bow. I have a really cheap carbon fiber bow which is better than either for spicatto.

So, every bow is different and many less expensive bows can be pretty good. Unless you are a virtuoso, paying for a famous name French bow seems pretty silly to me.

June 23, 2015 at 02:07 AM · "200-300 years old" is a bit of an exaggeration. Most of the fine bows available and desirable were made no later than about 150 years ago. Also, fine bows really don't "wear out" per se. Pernambuco is a good material because it tends to keep its camber (although occasionally one might need a little added every few decades). It's a "survival of the fittest" thing: bows that were too weak tended not to last or were proven undesirable over time. The ones that are left and desirable won't wear out if treated well.

To me, older bows generally sound better, and probably for reasons similar to violins. New bows just generally sound "new."

The really fine older bows have a resonance that modern bows lack, at least for some time.

June 24, 2015 at 03:01 AM · Bows are more delicate things, and can be broken much more easily. So some players may feel that their bow is equally important to their sound as the violin is, but they would pay a million for a violin and only one twentieth that for the bow. That's because they know that they'll have the violin forever, but that any number of things could happen to the bow.

In a way, this is answering the opposite question that the OP asked: why aren't rare bows as expensive as rare violins? As to why they're expensive in the first place, it's all about name and condition, the same as violins. Not about sound, except that the famous makers generally got famous because they made good-sounding products.

As to craftsmanship, it's not that modern makers can't do as well or better in that regard, it's that the famous examples from the past are just so well put together! Most modern makers I know revere their counterparts from 150 or 300 years ago. That doesn't mean they don't want to do things better, or differently. But they're playing the same "game", much as we do when we play pieces by Bach or Mozart. We can't really compare it to advances in refrigeration, medicine or physics, which turn so many disciplines into different games entirely.

June 24, 2015 at 03:04 AM · Greetings,

I always blind test (as far as is possible) whenever I have a chance. Averaging things out ove rather years the really old ish French come out better than modern makers for me. on the other hand an awful lot are awful and don't compare at all. Best bow for the bucks I weaver found was a Millant.. Before that I used good Nurnburgers. Changing to French made a big difference as described in one of the above posts.

Buri

June 24, 2015 at 03:53 AM · Nathan,

I agree that the value of old French bows is based on the name and condition, but one has to remember that the old French bows were once new and intended to be sold to the trade.

The good playing ones I'm sure found buyers easily. The dogs stayed in the shop unsold, thus the good condition they came down to us. Now a collector will go for provenance and condition, but that doesn't necessarily mean that the stick plays well. All the good ones have been played upon for the last 100 or so years bearing the scars of battle. So when we see a pristine example by a famous French maker of the past, we all go crazy, but take a look at the other French in the Auction room, they might be in a much worse physical condition, but they might outperform the jewel playing wise and also can be had for much less money.

June 24, 2015 at 01:03 PM · Definitely, I agree. My own bow is like you describe! Definitely wouldn't win a beauty contest. It does have the oddity of being a "picture bow", however, so I can take a look through the lens and see Vuillaume in there. I've heard there have been smuttier examples through the years.

June 24, 2015 at 03:30 PM · So true Kypros.I have a mint Prosper Colas which is very pretty but is just left in the dust by my Charles Peccatte which has been through many a concert since circa 1880 and shows it...

Someone in my orchestra lent me a Charles Espey bow and I agree with other posters that new bows dont have the smoothness of antiques but I do like the "sport suspension" feel of the Espey.

I had a great conversation with Sandrine Raffin in regards to workshop bows which are affordable but close in concept to the "real" bows by that maker.They could be good investments for a player starting out.

June 27, 2015 at 12:40 AM · I recently had the opportunity to play my violin with two exceedingly expensive bows and compare to my CF bow. The difference was sufficiently small that I concluded there would be nothing to gain by spending 10k on a wood bow. I want to repeat the experiment with some good modern bows.

June 27, 2015 at 12:51 AM · Paul, I personally haven't played any french bows yet. However, I would like to say that sometimes, the difference may seem sufficiently small, but any difference at all can drastically affect your playing. I remember one time, I was struggling with a difficult passage during a lesson, and after my teacher handed me his 7k bow, everything was a lot easier. Even he admitted that I played/and sounded a lot better. This might seem like an exaggeration, but I'm dead serious. What exactly was different about that bow? For me, it wasn't so much the sound that it produced, but how the bow felt while I held it.

It is definitely possible that the bows you tried were simply expensive bows that are not actually good for playing. It's also possible that you own a exceptionally good carbon fiber bow, that produces a nice legato sound.

June 27, 2015 at 03:21 AM · There's a fairly high probability that expensive bows that have sat in a shop for a long time aren't very good.

You can't draw much in the way of conclusions by trying a bow or two in a different price range. You've got to try a bunch, particularly those that are actually being used by players.

June 27, 2015 at 04:22 AM · While on the subject of assessing bows, I've read from a bowmaker's blog that you can not assess a wood bow for sound in the first few minutes of playing. The bow needs a couple of minutes to adjust to one's instrument and bowing technique for it to start vibrating, even if you own the bow but haven't played it for a day or so.

I put the theory to the and found it to be correct.

I played a carbon bow and immediately after I switched to my Sartory. The sound of the CF initially was clearly so much superior that the people participating in the experiment in all seriousness proclaimed the end of the wood bow era.

After playing the Sartory though for a few minutes, the assessment changed in favour of the Sartory by a big margin.

CF bows will play their best from the first moment, while wooden bows will take a few minutes to give off their best sound and handling.

Try this experiment for yourselves and see what results you come up with.

June 27, 2015 at 10:13 AM · This thread has evolved into another "magic" versus "science" discussion.

There are only a handful of mechanical properties that affect bowing performance: weight, balance point, stiffness profile, rotational inertia, spring rate to name most of them.

The best makers have at least an implicit understanding of this but it is difficult to make a wooden bow without some noticeable variance in performance.

Further complicating the issue is that no one set of mechanical properties is ideal for all playing techniques. So opinion of bowing performance is heavily affected by the techniques used during the test.

CF bows can have such tight control over the mechanical properties that one gets consistent performance from bow to bow. But the maker has to make a conscious decision about which techniques to emphasize, just like a wood bow maker.

Perhaps, just perhaps, what you are seeing with the "playing in needed" for a wooden bow is the PLAYER adjusting to the particular properties of the bow rather than the other way around.

Something that double blind and informal violin tests show is that if someone knows they are playing a very expensive piece of violin history or owns the piece of violin history, they are more willing and more able to write off performance issues as "personality" and work to play around the problems.

I recall James Ehnes talking about one of the great-sounding Strads. He said it was going to sound like it was going to sound, meaning on any particular day he had to be willing to adapt his playing to its shifting personality due to instability issues related to age and environment. I doubt he would be so tolerant of a modern violin with the same great sound and the same playability issues.

Personally, if I had the rare talent to play a cantankerous, ancient masterpiece and could afford to own it, I would choose to do so for its "magic" appeal. But I would have the good sense to realize that there are modern masterpieces that sound as good sans the "personality" issues issues.

June 27, 2015 at 01:04 PM · I really resent this oft heard insinuation that respected musicians are insane idiots so deluded that they hear differences that don't exist, science doesn't say anything about how a bow or violin sounds, its completely a subjective experience of listening with your ears, and 9 times out of ten, if a musician hears a sound difference you can bet there really is something there, IMHO.

June 27, 2015 at 01:22 PM · "There's a fairly high probability that expensive bows that have sat in a shop for a long time aren't very good."

Yes, and I've found that ordering bows for trial can be pretty disappointing: it may well be those non- selling bows that are sent off first for you to try...

June 27, 2015 at 06:58 PM · Yeah, I don't know too much about bows or bow makers, but when I made my first upgrade, I tried probably more than a dozen bows in the 500-700 price range, and decided that only one of them was objectively better than the original 40 dollar factory bow that came with my violin. The bow that stood out was substantially better than the rest (and it was the one that my parents ended up buying). It doesn't seem that uncommon for someone to sell a piece of crap for 700, so I would imagine that the variance would be even higher for more expensive bows. I'm sure that a serious soloist would invest even more time towards finding the "right" bow or instrument.

June 28, 2015 at 01:23 AM · The two bows I was shown were prized by their owner for actual playing, they were not shopworn bows. Despite the negative result I had in trying them, I would gladly try more. But I really dont think my bow is the weak link in my overall sound. I'm pretty sure I am.

June 28, 2015 at 02:58 AM · Paul, while it's good to be self-critical at times as a violinist, you shouldn't necessarily characterize yourself as the ultimate weak link in your tone production/violin playing :). I don't know what kind of a violin/bow you use right now, but regardless of the level you are at, you'll almost certainly sound better(to some degree) if some top soloist handed you his/her violin/bow.

Like I said before, your carbon fiber bow could very well be a very fine bow. What is more likely, is that you have somehow adjusted your perception of what an "ideal" bow should be based on your carbon fiber bow and subconsciously look for those characteristics in other bows you try. I'm guessing that you've had this bow for a while. I literally cringe when I hear someone say "Oh, I like my $500 Chinese factory violin better than this 12k instrument made by this really skilled modern maker." Actually I've only heard that once haha, but I tried both instruments afterwards myself, and arrived at a very different assessment of quality.

Every bow that I've tried before, like a violin, no matter good or bad, has its own unique voice or its individual qualities. They look like wooden(or cabon) sticks, but it seems to me like they have their own personalities.

I'm going to generalize, because I haven't tried any great carbon fiber bows before(I heard Avanti's are great?), but I did actually really like this particular $400 carbon fiber bow(don't remember the brand/maker). It was amazing for Spiccato, but did not really feel as great in my hand, or produce as delicate of a legato sound as the bow I use right now. It also had a really weird/awkward sensation in the high positions or while playing 10ths that I'm not sure how to describe(Although this could be due to a problem in my technique).

I could be completely off because the sample size is so small(less than 20 bows tried so far, and last time I used a different bow than my current one was years ago). However, that's pretty much what I thought about carbon fiber bows in general back then. I could change my mind now if I go back to the shop and try some bows. I guess I'm just trying to say that it's important to be open minded when trying new things, because you never know what you'll learn right?

I thought what an above poster said about his Sartory bow was very cool. It's quite interesting that even a stick needs to warm up too, just like a player.

June 28, 2015 at 05:20 PM · Carmen said, "CF bows can have such tight control over the mechanical properties that one gets consistent performance from bow to bow."

At least in practice, they do not. If you go into a violin shop that carries CF bows, and they've got several of the exact same model, you will find that they all feel and sound slightly different from one another. There's a tighter range of difference than you'd find in wood bows hand-made by a single bowmaker, but the differences still exist.

June 28, 2015 at 06:03 PM · I tried three CF bows of the same model. Some Chinese brand. They all sounded and felt different.

June 28, 2015 at 06:28 PM · If you try multiple CF bows of the same model and get dramatically different responses, then I would suggest you steer clear of that manufacturer.

The attraction of composite materials is the ability to design a range of mechanical properties, and to reproduce a set of properties with high precision.

One can also be sloppy with mold design and material control if the emphasis is to cheaply create a slick looking Bow Shaped Object.

June 29, 2015 at 12:19 AM · I've found that CF bows differ somewhat in the lower price ranges, but by the time you get to the upper end of the CF bows, the bows are quite individual. True across a bunch of reputable brands -- Coda, Jon Paul, Arcus, etc.

June 29, 2015 at 02:08 AM · I have to agree with Lydia. CF bows are not clones, even within the same model. I was surprised at the variance the first time I tried some out (Codabow Classics, if I recall correctly).

June 29, 2015 at 06:54 AM · I think the idea that carbon fibre violin bow manufacturers are master scientists custom designing all the parametres to give the optimal playing characteristics is a bit far fetched, maybe at the extreme top end carbon fibre makers, but at the low end, I doubt any science goes into it at all.

June 29, 2015 at 03:47 PM · I kind of agree with Lyndon, but it would be interesting to learn what kind of R&D goes on in the companies that make the CF bows. Presumably they are trying to outdo one another in terms of quality and not just cosmetic details.

I own three Cadenza Master (Three Star) bows (one for me, one for my daughter, and a spare). I believe Cadenza is an Eastman brand but I bought them all locally from someone who tries a couple dozen bows from a batch and then buys maybe six to eight at a time, which he then sells to his students without profit. He is a veteran professional who told me I would have to spend thousands to find a wood bow that plays as well. It's the bow he uses to teach. With that background, I have found that all three of my bows are essentially indistinguishable, but again, the duds and outliers, if there were any, were presumably already rejected by the person who sold me my bows.

June 29, 2015 at 05:49 PM · I'm not sure that you have to spend that much (thousands?) to get a good wood bow.

A top end CF bow might be £800 ($1,100) or maybe a bit more but a very, very good modern bow might be £2,400 (or $3,500) and have a better sound, but might be equal in playability.

Personally i would prefer the modern wood bow as it will sound better and appreciate in value. The CF bow probably won't appreciate much in value.

I do have an older wood bow which is from the 1930's and it has a great sound and plays wonderfully and is more in the region of £1,600 which is not much more than a top CF bow.

July 1, 2015 at 02:31 AM · My bow costs around $425. It may not appreciate in value but it's also virtually unbreakable.

July 1, 2015 at 07:08 AM · I have an unbreakable E string. Cost 50 cents ... Sounds terrible though ...

But on a serious note - it does not matter if you have an expensive French bow or a reasonable quality bow - you have to have the bowing technique to be able to get the most out of the bow.

In the end, when we hear top soloists play, we can't really tell if they are playing on a £50,000 bow or a £2,000 bow. Maybe they feel more comfortable on the expensive bow, but in the end it's the sound that you make that counts.

July 7, 2015 at 12:11 PM · Amen Peter...

July 8, 2015 at 05:01 PM · I posted in detail here about my experience buying inexpensive Chinese bows on Ebay.

http://www.violinist.com/discussion/response.cfm?ID=26982

What the experience meant to me is that you can still get a high quality pernambuco bow affordably that can support you in difficult passagework -- you don't have to spend $20k or even $2k to get a good bow.

There is great pernambuco still out there and there are great people carving it in a lot of places. You have to find it.

Now a no-name Chinese bow won't have investment value like an antique; it may only have value to you as you play it -- but for me, that's enough.

Just FWIW I am not persuaded that carbon fiber is such a great deal. I tried quite a few carbon bows in various price ranges a couple of years ago and just couldn't find anything that had the gentle, subtle quality of a good wood bow.

Fine for 20th century music, maybe fine for Baroque music, but the CF I tried would be a real handicap in playing Mozart and Beethoven.

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