By Louise Lee

The quality of Chinese-made bows is improving, but for some, doubts remain

It wasn’t so long ago that a string player wouldn’t pair a fine European-made stringed instrument with a bow crafted in China. But a year and a half ago, Ricardo Cyncynates, assistant concertmaster of the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, D.C., purchased a bow made in China to play with “The David,” his 1873 Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume violin. “I use it all the time” for both chamber and orchestral work, Cyncynates says. “It’s a beautiful bow, well-crafted, with perfect balance.”

Still, Cyncynates says he’ll use another bow, made by Bostonian Benoit Rolland, for an upcoming concerto appearance, but he has a backup plan. “If the Rolland, God forbid, couldn’t be used, I wouldn’t have any question about playing with the Chinese bow” says Cyncynates, who owns three other bows from US and European makers as well as two carbon-fiber models.

Cyncynates isn’t alone in his loyalty to a Chinese-made bow. Following the rapid rise during the past decade of Chinese-made instruments, bows from China in recent years are increasing in quality and popularity in the United States. While they have found their way into the cases of many professionals, Chinese bows have made their biggest impact on the semi-professional and student market. Virtually all beginner bows sold in the United States are from China, dealers report, and students far beyond the “Twinkle Twinkle” set can find a suitable Chinese model. Cyncynates notes that one of his teenaged students is studying the Tchaikovsky concerto on a Chinese-made bow and instrument. Higher-end Chinese bows are often a copy of a Peccatte, Vuillaume, or other fine European model.

Many Chinese bow makers trained in Europe and now have been working long enough to become highly skilled at the craft. That expertise, plus low local labor costs, translates into a highly attractive—and profitable—combination: a bow made in China costs a fraction of the price of a comparable model made elsewhere.

“If I pay $125 for a Chinese bow, it’ll be as good as a [comparable] $600 German bow. It’s a fact,” says Peter Prier, a violin dealer in Salt Lake City, Utah, who sells both Chinese and European models.

Besides affordability, Chinese bows as a whole offer quality by any standard. “I’ve seen an enormous number of bows from China,” says James Gaston, an independent luthier in South San Francisco, California. “They’re very competitive” with bows made in the United States and Europe, he says, noting that many are made from high-quality materials and with strong workmanship.

China is also a source of increasingly popular carbon-fiber bows. Although those bows generally produce a sound that’s thinner and less focused than a wood bow’s, “teachers are accepting them,” says James Mason, a bow specialist at David Kerr Violin Shop in Portland, Oregon. “For a student, they’re fine.”

Prices for Chinese-made carbon-fiber bows start as low as $60. As with a wood bow, a Chinese carbon-fiber bow sells for far less than a US or European model of similar quality.

Chinese Bows & Market Share

Figures on market share of Chinese bows in the United States aren’t available. But anecdotal evidence suggests that they represent a hefty piece of the pie. Prier, for instance, estimates that 65 percent of the bows he sells are from China, up from 40 percent a decade ago. Salazar estimates that at least 75 percent of the bows Eastman sells are from China.

Practically all the student bows that Shar Products in Ann Arbor, Michigan, offers are from China. Among the least expensive are the $25 models with brazilwood stick, leather thumb grip, and wire winding, described by Shar as “economical bows best suited to beginning players.”

A Chinese-made pernambuco bow with nickel mounting runs for $229 under Shar’s R. A. Meinel house brand. A Meinel bow with silver mounting is $379.

Shar says its most popular Chinese bows are sold under its Guy Laurent brand, which its website notes are made “in the tradition of the great French archetiers” and cater to “the most demanding advanced students and serious amateurs.”

A pernambuco silver-mounted bow from Shar’s Guy Laurent line is $460; the model with an “antique finish” tacks on another $100. The most expensive in the line is a copy of a Peccatte for $925.

“From our perspective, [Chinese bows] play an important role in the US market at all levels,” says Eric Hook, Shar’s vice president of marketing. By comparison, bows in Shar’s Klaus Becker line, made in Germany, range from a pernambuco bow with nickel mounting for $399 to one with silver mounting for $1,999.

What’s in a Name?

Most bows from China aren’t stamped with the name of an individual maker or workshop. Most are made by several craftsmen, with each maker working on one part of the bow before passing it down the line. Relatively few are made by a single individual. Those that are command a higher retail price because the luthier is presumed to be experienced enough to make an entire bow.

A few Chinese bow makers, though, are starting to make a name for themselves as individuals. Shar, for instance, recently began promoting bows by Ma Rong-Di, who the company says “has created over 800 bows, all of which are now in use by performing artists and master teachers around the world.”

Shar’s price for a bow by Ma: $6,000.

And at least one Chinese bow maker has won distinction at the Violin Society of America’s competition: in 2008, Chinese maker Long-Gen Chen won a Certificate of Merit for his violin and viola bows. Crowthers of Canterbury, a dealer in Kent, England, on its website sells a bow by Chen for £395. This “J.B. Vuillaume” model, says Canterbury, is the “finest pernambuco bow with round stick, Vuillaume-style ebony frog, and pearl eye.”

Of the luthier, Crowthers says, “Born in Shanghai, L.G. Chen is one of China’s most celebrated bow makers.”

A Hit-or-Miss Situation

While you can find a quality Chinese bow, not every bow coming out of China is desirable, just as not every bow from Europe or the United States is of high quality. Many Chinese bows show up on eBay or other websites selling for as little as $20 or less. “You still have to watch quality,” Hook says.

Despite the increasing quality and stature of Chinese bows, as was the case regarding Japanese instruments, “people once assumed that Chinese products are of lower quality, and historically, that’s true,” Hook adds.

Dealers say they’ve seen and rejected Chinese bows with improperly mounted frogs, crooked end screws, and loose grips, among other problems. Other shortcomings include end screws that won’t tighten, buttons that fall off, and wood that is of poor quality or that wasn’t dried and cured for a sufficient period of time and is shrinking, twisting, or warping. And some bows are badly balanced, most frequently tip-heavy.

Indeed, for dealers, sourcing bows from China can be a hit-or-miss situation. A year and a half ago, Jon Crumrine of Johnson String Instruments in Newton, Massachusetts, visited China and returned with a batch of about 50 bows. All sold quickly for prices ranging from less than $300 to just under $1,000, he says. Later, based on the quality of that batch, the shop ordered more bows from China without seeing them first. “The second order was less successful,” Crumrine says. “We’re still in the process of selling the second batch. Some had to go to the workshop first, but they’re viable.”

Despite those problems, Crumrine says, he may make another bow-shopping trip to China in the near future. “There are nice ones out there,” he says.

Even with their strengths and low prices, good Chinese bows will likely always face plenty of competition from their US and European counterparts, especially at the higher end of the market. One reason: some players want bows that they think will appreciate in price. Others
simply have their minds made up about Chinese products. “A lot of people come in here and say, ‘I don’t want to look at Chinese instruments,’” Mason says. “People have their own prejudices—they want a European instrument.”

Still, the wise bow shopper doesn’t merely look at the label, but tries out many different bows and listens to the results, judging each on its own merits. Ultimately, as Prier reminds customers, “the important question is how it sounds.”

Bows made in ChinaIt wasn’t so long ago that a string player wouldn’t pair a fine European-made stringed instrument with a bow crafted in China. But a year and a half ago, Ricardo Cyncynates, assistant concertmaster of the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, D.C., purchased a bow made in China to play with “The David,” his 1873 Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume violin. “I use it all the time” for both chamber and orchestral work, Cyncynates says. “It’s a beautiful bow, well-crafted, with perfect balance.

Still, Cyncynates says he’ll use another bow, made by Bostonian Benoit Rolland, for an upcoming concerto appearance, but he has a backup plan. “If the Rolland, God forbid, couldn’t be used, I wouldn’t have any question about playing with the Chinese bow” says Cyncynates, who owns three other bows from US and European makers as well as two carbon-fiber models.

Cyncynates isn’t alone in his loyalty to a Chinese-made bow. Following the rapid rise during the past decade of Chinese-made instruments, bows from China in recent years are increasing in quality and popularity in the United States. While they have found their way into the cases of many professionals, Chinese bows have made their biggest impact on the semi-professional and student market. Virtually all beginner bows sold in the United States are from China, dealers report, and students far beyond the “Twinkle Twinkle” set can find a suitable Chinese model. Cyncynates notes that one of his teenaged students is studying the Tchaikovsky
concerto on a Chinese-made bow and instrument. Higher-end Chinese bows are often a copy of a Peccatte, Vuillaume, or other fine European model.

Many Chinese bow makers trained in Europe and now have been working long enough to become highly skilled at the craft. That expertise, plus low local labor costs, translates into a highly attractive—and profitable—combination: a bow made in China costs a fraction of the price of a comparable model made elsewhere.

“If I pay $125 for a Chinese bow, it’ll be as good as a [comparable] $600 German bow. It’s a fact,” says Peter Prier, a violin dealer in Salt Lake City, Utah, who sells both Chinese and European models.

Besides affordability, Chinese bows as a whole offer quality by any standard. “I’ve seen an enormous number of bows from China,” says James Gaston, an independent luthier in South San Francisco, California. “They’re very competitive” with bows made in the United States and Europe, he says, noting that many are made from high-quality materials and with strong workmanship.

China is also a source of increasingly popular carbon-fiber bows. Although those bows generally produce a sound that’s thinner and less focused than a wood bow’s, “teachers are accepting them,” says James Mason, a bow specialist at David Kerr Violin Shop in Portland, Oregon. “For a student, they’re fine.”

Prices for Chinese-made carbon-fiber bows start as low as $60. As with a wood bow, a Chinese carbon-fiber bow sells for far less than a US or European model of similar quality.

Chinese Bows and Market Share

Figures on market share of Chinese bows in the United States aren’t available. But anecdotal evidence suggests that they represent a hefty piece of the pie. Prier, for instance, estimates that 65 percent of the bows he sells are from China, up from 40 percent a decade ago. Salazar estimates that at least 75 percent of the bows Eastman sells are from China.

Practically all the student bows that Shar Products in Ann Arbor, Michigan, offers are from China. Among the least expensive are the $25 models with brazilwood stick, leather thumb grip, and wire winding, described by Shar as “economical bows best suited to beginning players.”

A Chinese-made pernambuco bow with nickel mounting runs for $229 under Shar’s R. A. Meinel house brand. A Meinel bow with silver mounting is $379.

Shar says its most popular Chinese bows are sold under its Guy Laurent brand, which its website notes are made “in the tradition of the great French archetiers” and cater to “the most demanding advanced students and serious amateurs.”

A pernambuco silver-mounted bow from Shar’s Guy Laurent line is $460; the model with an “antique finish” tacks on another $100. The most expensive in the line is a copy of a Peccatte for $925.

“From our perspective, [Chinese bows] play an important role in the US market at all levels,” says Eric Hook, Shar’s vice president of marketing. By comparison, bows in Shar’s Klaus Becker line, made in Germany, range from a pernambuco bow with nickel mounting for $399 to one with silver mounting for $1,999.

What’s in a Name?

Most bows from China aren’t stamped with the name of an individual maker or workshop. Most are made by several craftsmen, with each maker working on one part of the bow before passing it down the line. Relatively few are made by a single individual. Those that are command a higher retail price because the luthier is presumed to be experienced enough to make an entire bow.

A few Chinese bow makers, though, are starting to make a name for themselves as individuals. Shar, for instance, recently began promoting bows by Ma Rong-Di, who the company says “has created over 800 bows, all of which are now in use by performing artists and master teachers around the world.”

Shar’s price for a bow by Ma: $6,000.

And at least one Chinese bow maker has won distinction at the Violin Society of America’s competition: in 2008, Chinese maker Long-Gen Chen won a Certificate of Merit for his violin and viola bows. Crowthers of Canterbury, a dealer in Kent, England, on its website sells a bow by Chen for £395. This “J.B. Vuillaume” model, says Canterbury, is the “finest pernambuco bow with round stick, Vuillaume-style ebony frog, and pearl eye.”

Of the luthier, Crowthers says, “Born in Shanghai, L.G. Chen is one of China’s most celebrated bow makers.”

A Hit-or-Miss Situation

While you can find a quality Chinese bow, not every bow coming out of China is desirable, just as not every bow from Europe or the United States is of high quality. Many Chinese bows show up on eBay or other websites selling for as little as $20 or less. “You still have to watch quality,” Hook says.

Despite the increasing quality and stature of Chinese bows, as was the case regarding Japanese instruments, “people once assumed that Chinese products are of lower quality, and historically, that’s true,” Hook adds.

Dealers say they’ve seen and rejected Chinese bows with improperly mounted frogs, crooked end screws, and loose grips, among other problems. Other shortcomings include end screws that won’t tighten, buttons that fall off, and wood that is of poor quality or that wasn’t dried and cured for a sufficient period of time and is shrinking, twisting, or warping. And some bows are badly balanced, most frequently tip-heavy.

Indeed, for dealers, sourcing bows from China can be a hit-or-miss situation. A year and a half ago, Jon Crumrine of Johnson String Instruments in Newton, Massachusetts, visited China and returned with a batch of about 50 bows. All sold quickly for prices ranging from less than $300 to just under $1,000, he says. Later, based on the quality of that batch, the shop ordered more bows from China without seeing them first. “The second order was less successful,” Crumrine says. “We’re still in the process of selling the second batch. Some had to go to the workshop first, but they’re viable.”

Despite those problems, Crumrine says, he may make another bow-shopping trip to China in the near future. “There are nice ones out there,” he says.

Even with their strengths and low prices, good Chinese bows will likely always face plenty of competition from their US and European counterparts, especially at the higher end of the market. One reason: some players want bows that they think will appreciate in price. Others
simply have their minds made up about Chinese products. “A lot of people come in here and say, ‘I don’t want to look at Chinese instruments,’” Mason says. “People have their own prejudices—they want a European instrument.”

Still, the wise bow shopper doesn’t merely look at the label, but tries out many different bows and listens to the results, judging each on its own merits. Ultimately, as Prier reminds customers, “the important question is how it sounds.”


The Rumor Mill

Within the U.S. bow-making community, suspicions persist that the high volume of bows coming out China implies that manufacturers there are using illegal exports of Brazilian pernambuco, the wood of choice for most bow makers and players. In 2007, pernambuco was added to the list of flora protected by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, which restricts international shipments of protected substances.

But despite the rumors, a spokeswoman for the US Fish and Wildlife Service, which enforces the CITES pact in the United States, says the agency is “not aware” of any issues orproblems with the source of the wood used in bows from China. She noted that the CITES agreement applies to the wood only, not a finished product, and that when a bow arrives in the States, it “comes in with the presumption that the wood source is legal.”

Still, at least one prominent West Coast bow seller, who asked not to be named, won’t carry pernambuco bows from China because the dealers from whom it sources bows can’t authenticate that the wood in those bows is, as the shop says, “certified.” Other US bow makers, who also do not want to be identified by name, say they suspect that the pernambuco in some Chinese-made bows isn’t legal, but could not state specific instances of Chinese-made bows that are made with wood that violates CITES.

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