I didn’t know what to expect as I was driving to Ifshin Violins to speak with Richard Ward, one of the head salesmen, about his knowledge of pernambuco wood. Ifshin has a prestigious name for local string musicians in the Bay Area, so I was a little nervous when I parked my car and walked over to the “Ifshin Violins” banner in the El Cerrito store. I had never been to Ifshin before and I must say that I was quite impressed by the size and elegance of the store. Violins, cellos, violas, bows and other musical paraphernalia filled every inch of the room. In the store, sounds of soothing classical music came from speakers as well as from practice rooms. I was definitely in the right place to get information about pernambuco.
Just like the aesthetics of the store, Ward was both welcoming and inviting. He came out to introduce himself and brought me to a practice room where we immediately dove into the subject of music. He explained that while the workers at Ifshin Violins are not bow makers themselves, they are very interested in bows, and get them from a number of makers around the world, including US based bow maker Morgan Andersen.
Although pernambuco is an endangered species today, some bow makers, like Andersen, aren’t as affected by the shortage of pernambuco because they’re well stocked from pernambuco they had gotten in earlier years—however, many young emerging bow makers aren’t as prepared. Ward said that although bow makers today can get semi finished sticks in certain quantities, the Brazilian government has stopped the exportation of the pernambuco logs themselves.
Not only is the only use of the wood used for making bows, but of the available wood, only a small percent of the wood is suitable for making high quality bows. Ward said one way of dealing with this is by using the reject parts of the wood to make less quality cheaper bows or using it to make other parts of the instruments such as the pegs, tailpieces, chin rests and so forth, but even then all of the wood can’t be used.
Considering the restrictions with exporting the wood outside of Brazil, I started wondering where the industry for bow making in Brazil was going and if they could ever be capable of producing bows on the same level of some of the traditional high quality makers, like those from France. Ward said he didn’t really see the Brazil makers getting to the very top. “You need more access to players to do really well because it’s an evolution,” said Ward, and many of the Brazil makers are located in isolated rural areas. Ward explained that there had never been a real industry for bow making in Brazil before the 20th century, and although there are some more well known bow making companies that can be quite good like Horst John and Arcos Brasil, most of the young independent bow makers of today in Brazil make student level bows rather than high end bows.
As Ward shared this fascinating information with me, we were briefly interrupted by someone coming into the room who wanted to play her violin, and we then gathered our stuff as I followed him out of the room. He asked me if I wanted to see some of their more high-end bows that they sold in the shop. I immediately said yes as I continued to follow him down the hallway into a small locked room. We walked inside and he brought out a case that had a handful of bows in them. Some of the nicest ones in the case went up to $35,000 he said. Some of these nicer bows were refined with gold and tortoise shell on the frog of the bows.
Ward continued to explain that during the beginning of the 18th century when Europeans started using the wood, no one ever imagined it could run out—it kept coming in and it was inexpensive. Throughout all these centuries no natural material has been found that compares in quality to pernambuco. The modern carbon fiber bows, the best being CodaBows, have become popular because of the shortage of pernambuco, and Ifshin sells a lot of these bows. Ward said he believes they will become more popular as pernambuco becomes harder to get. You can see violins, he continued, that use less than perfect wood like maple or spruce and if you’re a talented maker you can do a lot with that kind of wood. Bows, however, must be made of good wood, no matter what your experience is as a bow maker.
Ward carefully closed the case and set it aside, then led me to the back of the shop where four or five workers were repairing and working on the instruments. He left me for a moment and came back with two thin pieces of wood—the original pieces of pernambuco that people used to be able to get before the exports were restricted. Nowadays, he said, you cannot get wood like this unless people have it stashed away from previous years—today the only thing that can be exported are in the form of the semi finished sticks. “These sticks kind of look like bows that haven’t been cambered yet, so they’re straight and the heads have been roughed out so you have to do the finished work. Somehow I guess that can be exploited but you can’t get the wood like this from before,” as he pointed to the pure pernambuco sticks. The truth of the matter, he explained, is that “the ways the pernambuco bows play aren’t like anything else—there’s a smoothness to it in which it kind of plays itself.”
My final question for him was regarding his concerns in the future and what he would like to see himself. He said that he would like to see more of the wood being grown so that in 50 years from now when it reaches maturity there will be a supply of it for future makers—“but this is kind of up to the powers that be.” As he explained, it’s very likely that the bows will get more expensive as the wood becomes scarcer, but he’s confidant that people will find ways to keep making them. His last words gave a simple and accurate answer to my final question. “What’s the future? Who knows” he said, “Nobody knows. It is what it is.”