The DNAinfo archives brought to you by WNYC.
Read the press release here.

Why Do These Violin Bows Cost $6K? For One Thing, They Use Mammoth Tusks

By Kyla Gardner | March 27, 2015 5:32am
 Eric Swanson is a bow maker in the Fine Arts Building, 410 S. Michigan Ave.
Eric Swanson is a bow maker in the Fine Arts Building, 410 S. Michigan Ave.
View Full Caption
DNAinfo/Kyla Gardner

DOWNTOWN — When someone made off with a Milwaukee concertmaster's 300-year-old, $5 million Stradivarius violin last year, no one said, "But what about the bows?!"

So it goes for the violin world.

Stringed instruments and horse-hair bows date back to the 10th century, but with all the attention paid to the home of Antonio Stradivari and the luthier's contemporaries, the father of the modern bow, "the Stradivari of bow making," Frenchman François Xavier Tourte, isn't a household name.

"Historically, it was overlooked until maybe 1800," local bow maker Eric Swanson said. "The emphasis was on the violin for many years."

Swanson makes his living building and rehairing the bows of many of Chicago's musicians, from Mariachi players and college music majors to principal members of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

Eric Swanson, Bow Maker
View Full Caption
DNAinfo/Kyla Gardner

Kyla Gardner says professional musicians appreciate a fine bow:

Swanson studied at the Chicago School of Violin Making in suburban Skokie, and in his workshop on the fourth floor of the Fine Arts Building, 410 S. Michigan Ave., he also sells antique, early 20th century violas, violins and cellos.

An original bow made today usually sells for between $3,500 and $6,000, and the instruments in Swanson's shop top out at $50,000, which might be considered a budget item for the industry.

(The Milwaukee concert master's bows — which were found unharmed with the rest of the violinist's items — were both from the 19th century and valued at $20,000 and $30,000, reported the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel.)

Still, as he's expanded to selling instruments, the Rogers Park resident focuses on finding the perfect bow for his customers.

"The bow is an essential partner to the violin," Swanson said. "A violin will sound different with different bows. The tone will change."

Most of the business for the Lincoln Park native comes from rehairing bows, a complicated process that only takes the craftsman about 10 minutes, as he's had years of practice.

Most professional musicians need the service done once every three to six months, Swanson said, and since he opened his business in 2001, he's done thousands of rehairs.

Recently, a Roosevelt University undergraduate student in violin performance stopped in to talk shop with Swanson, the two poring over a trade magazine.

Swanson is a self-taught musician ("I do [play] but I'm terrible," he laughed), so Antonio Cevallos agreed to give a demo with the instruments available in Swanson's shop.

He tried an 1880 Jean Joseph Martin bow worth about $13,000.

Handing the bow back to Swanson, Cevallos said of the the instrument's precision, "It's the perfect weight. I feel like a frickin’ surgeon with that thing."

Watch the video to hear Cevallos play and see Swanson rehair a bow:

What makes a good bow is the ability to bounce, but also be controlled, during the short, quick movements of spicatto, Swanson said.

"You want a bow that will almost jump on its own."

A bow also needs to perform smoothly on a long pull across the strings.

"A good bow should be like a train on a train track, it's not going to weave or wiggle," he said. "A great bow with an amazing draw just holds to the string from frog to tip like it's glued to the string."

The sweet spot for weight on a bow is between 57 and 63 grams, and there's also the more esoteric "tone" to consider.

Swanson met his wife, a substitute for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on viola, when she came in seeking help with a troublesome bow.

Now she's an essential part of the business.

"Before she met me, she had an organic way of testing bows, and I think a lot of musicians have this — they have a sense of what the bow ought to do," Swanson said.

But over the years, the two have developed an almost scientific process for testing the instruments.

Swanson handles the technical aspects — is the bow straight, are the parts in working order — while his wife tests the playability.

She'll put them through Mozart's "Concerto No. 5," Prokofiev's "Classical Symphony" and Beethoven's "3rd Symphony", "the Eroica," just to name a few.

Antonio Cevallos, a violin performance student at Roosevelt University, left, and Eric Swanson, bow maker, right, look at an 1880 Jean Joseph Martin bow worth about $13,000. (DNAinfo/Kyla Gardner)

Roosevelt student Cevallos has also seen his bow knowledge grow working with Swanson.

"The older I get, and the more experience I get, the more my taste changes," he said.

Over the course of his career, Swanson has crafted about 40 bows from scratch. One of his originals is played by a cellist in the CSO.

The wood is carved from pernambuco, a protected wood only found on the Atlantic, Northeastern coast of Brazil.

The frog of the bow, its heel, is traditionally ebony, and the tip of the bow, ivory. With the U.S. ban on elephant ivory, many bow makers use 10,000-year-old mammoth ivory, Swanson said.

Most of the horse hair comes from China, a byproduct of the slaughter of the animals for for their hide and meat.

"The materials that we use to make bows are finite, so we have to make sure that we protect those materials and make sure that we can continue to make bows," he said. "It will be a challenge we'll have to deal with soon."

Swanson's shop may not sell a Stradivarius violin or a Tourte bow — one can find them in other shops in the Fine Arts Building — but it's his focus on what a musician can do with a bow, and not the brand name, that keeps his passion for his work alive.

"A bow has fewer parts than a violin. It's more of a simple, elegant thing, but in that simplicity is a lot of mystery, and I really like that about bows," Swanson said. "When educating my customers, I learn as much from them as they learn from me."

For more neighborhood news, listen to DNAinfo Radio here: