The epic quest for the pernambuco and the pearl
The last entry in my blog was to do with considerations behind responsible sourcing of materials for bow making and restoration. It’s a subject I may return to in the future, but for this instalment I’m going to talk about how I sourced two of my most important materials.
First, the pernambuco (Caesalpinia echinata). Historically, it’s by far the most popular wood used in making good quality bows, but has been endangered since 2007. This means that the only legal supply of the wood in raw or unfinished form is from stocks which were already in the EU before the ban came into place. There are very few such supplies left now, and since Britain has voted to leave the European Union, it remains to be seen how easily the remaining wood will be available to British makers after our exit.
So I consider myself lucky to have had the opportunity to buy a good stock of the wood last year from an ex-bow maker. It began with a chat with Martin Restall, a violin dealer in Midhurst whom I’ve known for years. When I complained of the difficulty of finding decent wood, he suggested I gave John Maw a call.
I knew of John Maw, although I had never met him. He had been trained by John Clutterbuck the ex-Hills bow maker but had stopped making bows after a few years, for reasons then unknown to me.
I tracked him down on the internet and found that he is now a professional photographer. On phoning him I found that we got on well. He told me that he did still have a small supply of pernambuco, which he had brought into the house to season some years before and which had lain undisturbed ever since under the stairs.
I was keen to meet him and see the wood so we arranged a day to visit. Catching a train over to his village to the north west of London, I took my small rucksack in anticipation of finding maybe ten or a dozen sticks and making an offer then and there. But on entering his kitchen, I found the table loaded with planks, billets, and individual sticks. I was astonished. It’s just not the sort of thing you expect to find!
During the ensuing chat, it turned out that John’s reasons for abandoning bow making were various, but two main factors were the irritant nature of pernambuco to the lungs, and the solitary nature of making bows at home. I can relate to the first of these issues myself, although I am lucky to share a workshop and have the benefit of a regular flow of customers coming for rehairs etc which helps to stimulate the senses!
Regarding the age of the wood, John explained that this had come to him from the workshop of Arnold Dolmetsch and was probably some sixty years old and perfectly seasoned. Naturally, this was of great interest to me.
The problem remained, however, how to price this pile of pernambuco. I got a bow template and used it to mark out roughly the number of sticks that could be cut out of each plank and billet, allowing for worm holes and natural defects. It took a couple of hours to mark it all out, and the count came to approximately 180 sticks.
Then we agreed on a price per stick, and the total was calculated. I won’t say how much I spent. It’s an unusual way to spend your life savings, but it’s an investment!
The small rucksack was taken home empty and I returned in a hired car to collect the wood instead. I’m very pleased with it - do look out for my new bows, many of which use wood bought from John.
The second part to this article concerns the mother of pearl I use. Various kinds of pearl are found on bows, but the type I like to use in my own bows is from the shell of the Ormer oyster (Haliotis tuberculata) which breeds around the Channel Islands. This pearl was favoured by many of the leading French makers of the mid-nineteenth century and has the most extraordinary figure and an apparent depth despite actually being very thin. It is also hard wearing and many bows made by these great makers still have their original pearl parts.
As with so many bow-making materials, it’s not easy to come by. The ormer oyster is protected, with stringent rules regarding fishing for them. However, the empty shells are fair game if you can find them, so I went off on a ‘business trip’ to the Channel Islands in late May four years ago with the intention of scouring the beaches of Jersey and returning with a good supply of ormer shells.
After the first day, I still hadn’t found a single shell. Evidently, they are collected by the locals as well as visiting bow makers, and adorn homes, gardens and walls all over the island.
My trip seemed to be proving fruitless until I made two lucky contacts. Firstly, I saw a silver plated ormer shell in a jewellers’ shop in St Helier, and decided on a whim to investigate. It seemed possible that the person who had plated the shell would have other shells which they might sell to me. However, the proprietor of the shop told me that they had loads of the shells themselves at home and could sell me some.
“How many do you want?”
“How many can you spare?”
“How about a sackful?”
‘Fine’ was an understatement. A sackful of ormer shells might last me a lifetime if I was lucky. But not all shells can be used, especially for larger components like pearl slides. And, not having seen the shells at this point, I decided to keep looking around just in case.
My next port of call - if you will excuse the pun - was a fish stand by the harbour gates. Waiting my turn in the queue, I asked the ladies behind the counter if they ever came across ormer shells.
“Like these?” they asked, lifting a carrier bag onto the counter. It was half full of empty shells.
“Just like those!”
They explained that the shells had been brought up in nets on the boats. Any live oysters had to be thrown back, but empty shells were kept for anyone who wanted them.
I said that these were worth something to me for my work and that I would pay for them, but the women said they were free. I insisted that I must pay something, so it was agreed that I would make a donation to the Royal National Lifeboat Institute.
The jeweller’s sack of shells came over to London some time after I had returned, as the family who owned the shop were visiting to see ‘We Will Rock You’ at the Dominion Theatre, Tottenham Court Road.
I got to the theatre late, and the family had gone in for the show but not before giving the sack of oyster shells to the man at the cloakroom. He must have been astonished to receive them, and not much less so to learn that someone was coming to pick them up. He wanted to know what they were for, and clearly didn’t understand when I explained. Security came over to have a good look, but they too were nonplussed, and soon afterwards I was out of the theatre and heading home with a sack of shells on my shoulder. Look out for the amazing pearl on my bows - it’s awful stuff to work with, but the finished article is beautiful!