Don't be a slave to your bow
Brian Hodges and Jo Nardolillo write "Don't be a slave to your bow", (p80, Cello Secrets: Over 100 Performance Strategies For The Advanced Cellist). "When you allow the technical limitations of the bow to dictate the musical phrase, you become a slave to the bow."
They recommend playing a phrase with different bowings. If the nuances of your phrasing are different, and consistent with your intentions, then you are "free"; but if all the renditions of the phrase are the same, then the bow is your boss.
At a basic level, this notion is a "test" of a player's development: Can you bow a phrase in different ways and achieve different nuances? Indeed, can you conceive different nuances?
But once you have the ability to bow any chosen phrase with a host of nuances, and produce what you expect, is this a test of a bow?
Using a $2,000 bow, I claim I can readily achieve a range of nuances when bowing a phrase: do I ever need to buy another bow?
If, when trying great-playing bows, you do not feel any difference in what you are able to do, there is no point in upgrading.
Better bows sometimes make things easier. Even when they don’t, they can improve sound— often dramatically.
Perhaps in agreement with the OP,
I think great bow (one that also matches your violin), like Lydia commented, makes things a lot easier. It’s really similar to driving a 3 speed shift car vs a 7 speed shift car. 7 speed shift gives you more control, precision and options.
Once you get to the point where you're ready for an upgrade, the upgrade itself opens up a skillset. You can then apply that skillset backwards, but it's very hard to get that skillset without proper feedback, which tells you what
Playing a bow that makes a perceived superior difference in tone certainly does open up possibilities, however there is a distinct differences and marriages between the skills of the player and the what the bow can do.
OP: "But once you have the ability to bow any chosen phrase with a host of nuances, and produce what you expect, is this a test of a bow?"
Bow does matter to a certain point imho. I used to have a cheap bow that wasn’t even a straight stick! It didn’t articulate on off the string strokes...
I take responsibility for my bad playing and the work I need to do to get better. So I have never blamed my instruments or bows for my slow progress. But a month ago my gamba teacher put a $1,500 Grabenstein bass viol bow in my hand and I cannot stop thinking about the surprising difference it made in how I could make my strings sing! Now I am indeed in the market for a better gamba bow, and no, I don't expect it to miraculously make me a better player...but I hope practicing might then hold even more pleasure and progress.
Rise up against our opressors! Down with the bow-geousie!
"can you conceive different nuances" is the phrase that hooks my thoughts.
The test of a bow comes down to the way it responds in your hand and the kind of sound you produce with it. A great bow will make phrasing easier and will help you draw a rich and full sound from your instrument. Once you choose a price range that fits your budget, you can play all kinds of bows in that range to find the one that performs best for you. It’s not uncommon to find bows that seem to outperform their price tag if you invest some time in your selections.
Thanks for this comment, Rich: "A great bow will make phrasing easier and will help you draw a rich and full sound from your instrument."
On bows I'm a fully paid up, card-carrying sceptic (there an old saying in my world, "nullius in verba" which essentially means don't believe in old sayings), but surely the very idea of auditioning a "table full of bows" is absurd. How long does it take to assess the qualities of one bow and (even more importantly) what you can do with it? Ten minutes, an hour? More like a month I'd say. Take home a handful.
I've spent hours auditioning a table of bows (which is usually not more than a dozen or so at a time.) For me some bows can be rejected immediately on tone or performance. Others feel and sound immediately good. Others feel like there's something there but not sure. So you take notes in several categories: tone (lows, highs and overtones), long tones/cushion (does it sink in or skim the surface, does it feel nervous), balance (feel at the frog/tip, especially on rapid mixed bow changes and strong crosses), resonance (especially for detache, off string and chords), articulation (does it catch the string at all parts of the bow or resist, and how fast), off string (is it controlled and responsive), tricks (ricochet, staccato, flying staccato), etc. Play two bows at a time and eliminate in these categories to whittle down. Compare the finalists and pick two to trial at home (1 to 2 weeks if the shop is generous, private dealers may give you longer; a well known dealer used to say you only need two weeks to decide: one week to convince yourself and the second to talk yourself out of it, which is to say, unlike a violin, you know pretty quickly whether the bow is a good match and performs well for you.)