Tuesday, November 22, 2011


Years ago I was visiting with the Parisian luthier and bow connoisseur, Bernard Sabatier. An American violinist who had recently started buying and selling bows was there and he had just talked Sabatier into selling a cello bow from his collection. It was a gold mounted Victor Fetique exhibition bow in perfect condition. It had what looked like an original gold winding but the neophyte dealer remembered being advised that one should always check to see if a bow had been grafted by removing the winding.

Grafting is done when the bow at the frog area is completely worn out from years of handling. Then a new piece of wood is joined to the original stick under the grip and the original frog fitted to it. The properly grafted bow is just as strong and useful as the original but loses value because some original wood is lost and with it the maker's stamp. With modern repair techniques grafting has become rare. Of course a gold winding is expensive and this adage only applied to a bow in an advanced state of wear, but the young dealer insisted on removing the grip.

Sabatier shrugged and started unwinding the gold, but soon all of our eyes registered a look of incredulity. The bow had been grafted and each of the eight facets of the stick at the graft was stamped 'Vtor. Fetique à Paris'. With his typical fatalistic manner, Sabatier shrugged again, put the bow back in the box and with a certain uneasyness the young dealer left the shop. He had been right but at incredible odds.

Sabatier's Fetique was revealing and being absolutely original was even more interesting as a collector's piece. If Fetique had been obliged to graft a extra piece on a too-short Pernambuco stick it could only mean one thing. He lacked enough really beautiful pernambuco for his gold mounted production and it may have pained him to set aside the too-short piece of wood.

Stephane Thomachot and Bernard Sabatier

This story obliquely illustrates an important point. The quality of the pernambuco wood in a bow is what sets it apart and truly this wood is the rarest and most precious thing in the bow. The gold may be expensive but it is not rare in the same sense, you can go to a dealer in precious metals and buy it at any time. All makers starting with the Tourte family made a limited number of bows with gold mountings for their clients who wanted the highest quality. Gold conferred more value but the bow's real quality always rested on the pernambuco stick. The great majority of the finest bows of all time are silver mounted.

Today when buying a contemporary bow it is important to know the practice of the maker. With some makers, gold mountings indicate their highest grade and commissioning a gold mounted bow ensures that you will get the best wood the maker has. In this case it could be well worth the extra cost of the gold mountings. In my case I select the best possible stick for the player regardless of the mounting and so gold is only an aesthetic consideration. I have enjoyed making the occasional gold mounted bow for those who truly love the look. For instance, Francois Hetsch, a french violist received some money when his mother passed away and he wanted to reinvest it in a gold mounted bow to remember her by; this made perfect sense.

Charles Espey violin bow 1983, Bellamy 'or rose'.

Another thing to think about when considering gold mountings is the gold itself. Gold is available in a variety of alloys and their corresponding color. In Paris we would always use 18 carat 'or rose' from Bellamy, a little dealer by the rue de Gravilliers in the jeweler's quarter. This had a beautiful warm pinkish tone against the ebony or the tortoiseshell that was still available at the time. Gold must be alloyed with other metals because if made of soft pure gold the 'passant' or ferrule would bend when the hair was wedged into place. 18 carat gold is ideal for this and consists of 75% gold alloyed with silver and copper to give it stiffness and the required color. But sometimes bows from production shops are offered in gold and this metal is often 14 carats or less. Fourteen carat gold is only 58.5% gold.

I appreciate the simple and elegant look of silver and beautiful ebony. In addition, gold is a significantly heavier metal than silver so gold increases the weight of frog and button by about a gram. This can be compensated for but it depends on the bow. Another thing to bear in mind is the fact that a maker may feel obliged to use dense, strikingly beautiful wood with a gold mounted bow. This wood may or may not be an ideal match for the musician or their instrument. Sometimes a less dense or simpler looking wood will give the best tonal return. One has only to look at the plain brown color of some of Francois Tourte's best bows to recognize this. So gold is an option but not a prime consideration in selecting a fine bow.

Today there is another more sombre consideration regarding gold mounted bows. The staggering rise in the price of gold has come with an exponential increase in exploitative and environmentally devastating mining practices in some of the world's poorest and most unstable countries. 70% of the world's gold is coming from developing countries but even in technologically advanced countries, gold mining has a significant environmental impact. In the Eastern Congo gold is being mined by forced labor under the control of militias who use their proceeds to buy arms. The use of cyanide and mercury to process gold has environmental consequences from the Amazon to the Eastern Congo. See this article for further information: http://www.independent.co.uk/environment/the-real-price-of-gold-512591.html. These issues have prompted Hoover and Strong, a dealer used by many American makers, to market a gold certified as entirely recycled. This is a very good thing but any use of the metal effects the demand.

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