Why do bows vary so much in price?

AVMA Noticeboard News and Events Why do bows vary so much in price?

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    Bows – by AVMA member, John Simmers

    I was recently asked by a good client of ours, if I could write something about bows. She told me that her students and their parents often couldn’t understand why there was so much variation in price, and felt that an explanation would be useful. Well here goes. The following are my current thoughts on different qualities and price ranges for bows.

    Over my last eighteen years in the violin trade, I have seen, repaired, rehaired, played and sold many bows. I am in a fortunate situation, as I have access to a great range of bows to evaluate. I see and hear many different bows in our studio every day, usually being tried and compared with each other, price versus playing and sound quality being the important factors. Fortunately, I am pleased to say that as a general rule, as the price goes up, the qualities of the bows improve dramatically.

    I believe that good wood is the most important aspect in the making of a good bow. Most bow sticks are made from two types of wood known in the trade as Brazil Wood and Pernambuco. Although of a similar colour, to the experienced eye these two woods are quite different. Brazil wood is an opaque, cold brown colour, and generally has a yellowish streak in an open pored grain structure. Pernambuco is quite different. High quality pernambuco has a warmer colour, a very fine “figure” running across the grain and demonstrates a translucent effect in the influence of strong light.

    Pernambuco is denser and more elastic than Brazil Wood providing better playing characteristics, particularly when called to play off the string. The best bowmakers will use wood that is well seasoned and therefore stable. Unfortunately, the pernambuco tree, which grows in Brazil, has been exploited over the centuries, due to its past use as a natural dye for leather and other materials. It is becoming more difficult for bow makers to obtain good wood and naturally, pernambuco wood has become very expensive. In 2007 Pernambuco wood (Caesalpinia echinata) was listed in Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). For more information visit http://www.ipci-usa.org .

    A quick word about mountings. Most bows are mounted with nickel, silver or gold. The maker (or workshop) use the mountings to demonstrate the quality of the materials and workmanship that have gone into the making of the bow. The actual cost of the metals, even in gold mounted bows, is quite small when compared to the cost of the bow.

    The term “trade” refers to bows that were made to be sold into the trade, i.e. wholesale distributors and violin shops, rather than directly to players. These may be made by highly mechanized “factories” or smaller workshops employing production line techniques to reduce cost.

    I like to divide the bow market into several subsections. These are:

    – Throw away bows (we don’t even bother with these – $50 to $100)
    – Bows that are able to be rehaired relatively easily and are worth rehairing, but may require some reworking, mostly made in China from brazil or similar woods ($130 +)
    – Good beginner bows – mostly Brazil Wood from Europe. Also some decent nickel or silver mounted Pernambuco bows from China ($350 +)
    – Nickel mounted pernambuco bows from Europe ($500 +)
    – Trade quality silver mounted bows ($1000 +)
    – Fine hand made bows ($2500 +)

    So now to try and explain why there is so much difference in price between bows. Put simply, it comes down to two factors: the quality and therefore price of the materials and the amount of time that is spent crafting the bow. The cheapest bows are made from poor quality materials of varying properties. Each bow is made to the same model without compensations and variations being made to allow for the individual nature of the wood being used. Using this method, sometimes they get it right, but mostly the bows are mediocre. The better trade bows do have an element of hand work in their making. So there is some chance for the craftsman to have an input into the finished result.

    To the other extreme, a fine hand made bow is made by one person from start to finish. The maker uses their skill, experience and intuition to choose good wood (dismissing most of it) and fashion that wood into a well balanced, weighted and cambered stick. The maker is constantly analyzing the feel and sound of the stick. They make all the metal fittings for each bow, rather than choosing mass produced parts.

    The reason that it costs more to buy hand made bows? Time! Bow makers must eat and live, as we all do. As they put their time and skill into crafting the finest bows they can, they need to make an income. Fine hand made bows are also works of art. Being completely hand made, each bow is a one off.

    So there it is. The more input the craftsman has as a bow is being made, the better the chances of revealing and assembling the ultimate bow from the raw materials. The more time allocated to each bow, the more the maker must charge for the bow. After a long career, some bow makers develop a reputation for making consistently fine bows. It is these makers whose bows fetch high prices because of the demand for their bows.

    Well I hope I have managed to shed some light on the subject. I have deliberately not written about old bows, but much of what I have written is applicable. Factors to be considered with old bows are the condition of the bow, and its antique value. Perhaps that is a subject for another article.

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