Sunday, January 22, 2012

Mirecourt, France. Where the Seeds of French Bow Making Were Sown.

By Andy Fein and Angie Newgren

In the twenty-first century, violin makers (luthiers) and bow makers (archetiers) are usually two separate people with skill sets that are very rarely combined. It would seem that a luthier would be interested in making the bows that go with their instruments, but bow making is entirely its own occupation.

Violin bow attributed to Francois Jude Gaulard, Mirecourt, ca. 1845-1850

Up until the mid-1700s, bow making was not a specialized occupation, but as the world began to change (music, traveling, merchandise etc.), the two skills started to separate. The knowledge, discovered and shared back then, affects so much of what we learn and use today to create these beautiful instruments and their bows.

Much of this knowledge originates from Mirecourt, France.

Mirecourt is a city in France that has occupied a well acclaimed place in the art of instrument making (specifically the violin family) for centuries. In the 16th century, before Mirecourt was officially part of France (they were in the principality of Lorraine), their region and culture was rich and flourishing due to a bustling mercantile  trade. This continued for several decades, giving the people of Mirecourt all types of jobs, and brought violin making to the fore.

 In 1740-1745 their were over 60 luthiers (masters, craftsmen, and apprentices altogether) listed in Mirecourt's census. But not a single bow maker was listed. Not until 1756 do we discover the names of the first ever (recorded) bowmakers in Mirecourt: Nicolas Guinor, Frances Herlot, and Jean Piat. Jean Piat married into the Valtrin family, one of the oldest names of Mirecourt luthiers. Two years later, in 1758 the distinction between the two expertises was official. At this time there were around 10 bow makers in Mirecourt: Nicolas Guinot, Frances Herlot, Jean Piat, Jean-Claude Samuel, Firmin Aubry, Mauchamp, Nicolas Duchene, The Hussons*, The Lamys, The Buthods*, and Jerome Thibouville (Not to be confused with Jerome Thibouville-Lamy: a fine luthier and owner of the largest workshop/factory in Mirecourt in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries).

*A bow made by C.C. Husson can be valued at $5,000-$7,000, or more, today.
*A bow made by Charles Buthod can be valued $6,000-$7,000, or more, today.

Another great luthier who came out of Mirecourt was Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume. Did I say luthier? I thought this was about bow makers! Although Jean-Baptiste is credited mainly for his work on instruments, he understood the importance of bows. In 1818, (around age 20) Vuillaume moved to Paris to work with Francois Chanot. In Paris, he realized the importance of bows. He hired J. P. M Persoit, who later hired Dominique Pecatte (from Mirecourt) to perfect bows. Those three men (including Vuillaume, whose new passion was for bows) became known as some of the greatest bow makers. Even compared to the great innovator of modern bows Francis Tourte. One of Vuillaume's greatest admirers was Paganini who thought his bows were "infinitely preferable."
Other mentionable bow makers who worked at Vuillaume's and were born in Mirecourt include: Nicolas Maline, Joseph Henry*, Pierre Simon*, Francois Peccatte*, Jean-Joseph Martin*, Charles-Claude Husson*, and Prosper Colas*.

*A bow made by Joesph Henry  can be valued at $35,000-$50,000, or more, today.
*A bow made by Pierre Simon can be valued at $30,000-$40,000, or more, today.
*A bow made by Francois Pecatte can be valued at $30,000-$45,000, or more, today.
*A bow made by Jean-Joseph Martin can be valued at $12,000-$15,000, or more, today.
*A bow made by C.C. Husson can be valued at $5,000-$7,000, or more, today.
*A bow made by Prosper Colas can be valued at $8,000-$10,000, or more, today.

Bows by  Persoit, Peccate, and Fonclause made for J.B. Vuillaume

Another century passed, and by  the late 1860s mass production of instruments and bows started to tear down Mirecourt's reputation for  producing great instruments and bows. There was however, Eugene Sartory*. Born in 1870, he studied bow making under Charles Pecatte*, and Alfred Lamy*. By 18 years old, Sartory had his own shop! Obviously gifted, Sartory's business took off. In earlier years of his career, Emile Germain had bows made by Sartory. Germain signed them as if he made them!

*A bow made by Eugene Sartory can be valued at $18,000-$30,000, or more, today.
*A bow made by Charles Pecatte  can be valjued at $18,000-$30,000, or more, today.
*A bow made by Alfred Lamy can be valued at $14,000-$18,000, or more, today.

Even with Emile Germain's scheme, and along with 1,000 of other ones just like it, expert appraisers, luthiers and bow makers can often determine the true origin of work by our Mirecourt archetiers (bow makers). It is truly amazing how much talent flowed from Mirecourt, France to the rest of the world. We think of Paris as the great center of violin and bow making in France, but the seeds of those fields were nurtured in Mirecourt.

Invaluable resources for the history of Mirecourt luthiers and archetiers are Manufactures & Maitres-Luthiers by Jacques Dider and L'Archet a beautiful four volume set by Bernard Millant, Jean Francois Raffin, and Bernard Gaudfroy.


  1. Hello Andy,
    Just a quick note.
    The first bow pictured above is incorrectly attributed -
    "attributed to Francois Jude Gaulard, Mirecourt, ca. 1845-1850"

    The stick is branded and judging from the brand which looks authentic, is the work of N. J. Harmand (1793-1862).
    To assess the frog and button, I would have to see it in person.

    1. Like many attributions, it could be Francois Jude Gaulard, N.J. Harmand, or someone else. Unfortunately, none of us saw the bow when it was carried out of the maker's shop. I think the era and country of origin are correct.

  2. Do you really think that if it was a Gaulard, that he would brand it with Harmand's brand?
    They did not work together.
    Gaulard bows are either stamped GAULARD or not stamped at all, but never stamped with Harmands brand.