For musicians in Paris, the rue de Rome is a legendary place, at the same level as Tin Pan Alley or 42nd Street in New York. Sheet music shops and luthiers’ workshops are packed in like sardines. Amidst a delicate choreography of the musicians who are the street’s regular denizens, a few tourists wander from one shopfront to the next with jaws dropped, stopping here and there in front of a window, sometimes daring to push at a door to gawk in genuine wonderment at the violins and cellos stacked to the ceiling. Behind the instruments, a badly lit glass case is a less obvious draw: the bows. As any professional musician will tell you, these magic wands can change everything, from technical comfort to sound level, from warmth of timbre to the articulation of a sautillé. Some artists spend a lifetime searching for the rare pearl that will create their best chance to shine on stage. Others collect them by the dozen, each bow suited to some specific corner of the repertoire. It’s a place to inquire into these mysterious objects, whose secrets are unknown even to most musicians.

Arnaud Suard at his craft © Tristan Labouret / Bachtrack
Arnaud Suard at his craft
© Tristan Labouret / Bachtrack

N° 56. This historic workshop was the abode of a doyen of French bow making, Bernard Millant, unquestionably the top expert in his field of the 20th century. For almost thirty years, the Le Canu family have taken on the business and the name of the master, who carried on sharing his expertise in the building for many years, well into his 80s. Bow making is a small word, a family affair, an ancient craft which passes from one bow maker's mouth to the ear of the next. Nicolas Le Canu, who now owns the shop with his wife Elisabeth, won't be the one to contradict this: "I learnt the tricks of the trade at my father's side. In some cases, I've used exactly the same gesture, but backwards – that's because I learned looking into a mirror!" In parallel with his work as a luthier in the same workshop, Nicolas makes around twenty to thirty bows per year, which he sells at 3,500 Euros a throw – and that's not a lot compared to the price an antique bow can fetch.

N° 68. Sandrine Raffin has one of the largest stocks of bows in the street. Placed for sale by individuals, her best pieces are true works of art. Ivory, tortoiseshell, mother-of-pearl with a pink hue, gold thread worked into the wood... the most sumptuous materials have been sought out to create objects that are as beautiful to see as they are to hear. François-Xavier Tourte, François Peccatte, Eugène Sartory are the names of the Stradivari of the bow. Last December, in Vichy, saw the breaking of the world record for the most expensive bow by a Tourte, which went for over half a million Euros – a record that is unlikely to last for long. "The stock of antique bows is declining over time," Sandrine explains. "If one holds to one's standards, it's becoming steadily harder to find such bows in good condition. So the inevitable consequence is that prices rise."

Brazilwood bow sticks © Tristan Labouret / Bachtrack
Brazilwood bow sticks
© Tristan Labouret / Bachtrack

Even contemporary bow making depends on a primary material which isn't here to stay: all the top quality bows are made of Pernambuco (also called Paubrasilia or Brazilwood), a hardwood from Brazil that is threatened by deforestation. The bow makers who are currently active aren't in immediate danger, since the more farsighted have already secured enough stocks of wood to last them until retirement, but the situation remains concerning for future generations. In this context, bows are an endangered species: "One day, a musican came to see me, asking me to make some adjustments to his Peccatte, which wasn't lively enough for his taste. I flatly refused to touch it: one doesn't adulterate a bow like that on a whim!" Sandrine has one credo: it's the musician who has to adapt to the bow, not the reverse.

In these circumstances, the quest for the right bow is close to witchcraft: "When a musician comes to me for the first time, I ask what they are looking for, whether it's for a specific repertoire or technical requirements. I examine their current bow and its characteristics: its camber, its centre of gravity, its liveliness. From the criteria I've deduced and what I have in stock, I offer a series of bows but I then ask that they don't try to find out what each of them is: what's needed is for them to fall in love. The bow is going to be the extension of the musician's arm, but there's also a question of chemistry with the instrument that can't be explained rationally. When a musician finds it, that's a moment of pure magic, a moment that's beyond description."

Sandrine Raffin's workshop © Tristan Labouret / Bachtrack
Sandrine Raffin's workshop
© Tristan Labouret / Bachtrack

N° 54. Arnaud Suard, on the other hand, can't permit himself to eschew description when it comes to bows. He's an expert witness for the Paris Court of Appeal, the person who the judge calls upon when it comes to litigation – theft, questions of a bow's authenticity, and so on. Arnaud examines the object from every angle, notes down the distinctive signs that are known to him and gives his verdict. A rapid glance at a bow's head will mark it as a Sartory (the camber is a particularly pronounced), a Peccatte (the camber will be more spread through the length of the stick). To combat fakes, the bow makers still use secret codes to this day, placing marks known only to themselves in strategic places in the wand. Under the thumb leather, under the fingers of a musician who is unlikely to be aware of such things, there is sometimes a hidden signature. Of what kind? The expert answers vaguely, professional secrecy being paramount.

Let's return to n° 56 and Nicolas Le Canu. With a twinkle in his eye, the bow maker is happy to explain the ins and outs of "Rehairing", a painstaking process whose details are not generally known to professional violinists. Whether it's from Canada, Siberia or Mongolia, the horsehair in a bow eventually wears out, so it has to be replaced. For hard-working musicians, this may need to happen several times a year, which has prompted Nicolas to create a loyalty card that wouldn't be out of place in a hairdressing salon: six rehairs bought, the seventh free. It has to be said that most of his colleagues far prefer making a bow from new, but Nicolas has a particular affection for rehairing and is enthused by it: "It's fantastic! Just imagine: I can get to see inside bows completely different from one another, to see the details of a Sartory or a Maire..." 

Nicolas Le Canu rehairing a violin bow © Tristan Labouret / Bachtrack
Nicolas Le Canu rehairing a violin bow
© Tristan Labouret / Bachtrack

The secret of good rehairing? "There are several methods, which vary by country. The big question is to know whether to start or finish at the head – personally, I finish. It's the more difficult technique, but it gives me the best control over the tension. With the help of a small wedge, the horsehair is fixed into the frog [the small piece of metal at the end of the hair, under the musician's fingers: ed], without forcing it and using the minimum of glue, then one strethces the hair and knots it towards the head." It's in this knot, hidden in the end of the bow, that one notices the craftsman's trademark: "Each has his own way of proceeding, with a colour code unique to them. The musician doesn't know about all this... When I embark on a rehairing, I know exactly who did it the last time simply by looking! Sometimes, I admire a colleague's work – or I become aware of damage that he has caused", he confides, raising his eyes. Knowing his regular customers better than they know themselves, he creates customised horsehairs: "I can see clearly, from the way the hairs have worn, the musician's playing style. One will need a strong attack, with hairs reinforced on the side ot the bow that first addresses the string. According to the flexibility of the stick, one may use a larger or smaller quantity of hair. One can also work with the types of horsehair to satisfy an artist's needs: Siberian and Mongolian hairs have different diameters, which affects the timbre and the volume of sound..."

There are innumerable recipes, and their consequences have consequences for the sound that few people would imagine. When one starts learning violin, this isn't the kind of question one asks. In a shop a few doors away, one learns that beginners' bows cost 50 Euros or so and no-one knows too much about the materials used to make them. The bows are therfore "single use", like common plastic cups. Paying for a rehairing would cost more than buying a new bow!

The rue de Rome © Tristan Labouret / Bachtrack
The rue de Rome
© Tristan Labouret / Bachtrack

N° 54. We're ready to leave Arnaud Suard. Last question: have you never been tempted to leave the rue de Rome, to follow the Paris Conservatoire's move to porte de Pantin, as was done in the past? The reply comes without hesitation: "No, not for a single second! Some of my colleagues tried – they returned soon afterwards." Arnaud was part of the training of three apprentice bowmakers at the École de Mirecourt. Amongst them was Georges Tépho, who subsequently set up shop at Quimper, in Brittany, where he plied his trade for 35 years. Last year, he brought his tools back to Paris, in the 17th arrondissement, a few minutes a way, proof that the rue de Rome has kept its appeal. As to the bows themselves, they keep their secrets.

Translated from French by David Karlin