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The bows of Eugène Sartory have a strange and mystical allure, and like it or not we all fall under their spell. But what is it with Sartory? Many of his contemporaries produced equally beautiful and functional bows, but they don’t weave the same spell or command the same kind of prices.

The usual explanation for this phenomenon is that the supply of Sartorys is seemingly inexhaustible, and that the quality is unerringly high. I’m sure these are factors, but there’s more to it than that – there’s also the character of the man, and our mental image of him.

Who hasn’t seen this photo of Sartory and his exuberant handlebar moustache? Here’s a fellow whose aesthetic sensibility takes precedence over practicality, who spends a little more time than necessary admiring himself in the mirror, and who seems to know that he is French.

Eugene Sartory, bow maker

A smiling, confident figure with a direct and untroubled gaze, elegantly turned out in a three-piece suit – a far cry from the usually disappointing representations of our luthier heroes, who more often than not have bad skin, Mr Magoo glasses and soup on their shirts.

Zoom out to the full image and we enter a world full of nuance… a peaceful and well established garden, a private space in which Sartory and his wife stand equal, the two daughters relatively well behaved but not bludgeoned into obedience.

That’s the hedge of someone who can afford a nice hedge, who has control of their environment and perhaps the time to appreciate it. The two garden chairs belong to the garden and belong to the Sartorys, as do the daughters… Sartory rests a hand on the back of each chair, taking pride in what is his.

Eugene Sartory and family

And such charm and amiability in this image – four strongly defined individuals, each in their own space yet comfortable together, easy in the presence of a photographer who was most likely a family friend. Perhaps Mme. Sartory is slightly less committed to the silly business of photos, but her pose is unaffected and she knows she belongs there. She is slightly taller and more imposing than her husband, but he’s okay with that.

I’m particularly struck by the sense of balance that emanates from what should be an awkward composition. Look at the diagonal relationships – Sartory top right and daughter bottom left are the same genetic material, refined in their features and sharing this strange gaze full of tender yet absent amusement. Mother top left and daughter bottom right are both cut from a different, coarser and earthier cloth, both perhaps knowing that they aren’t the principal subject matter.

For me the most telling aspect of this image, its semiological kernel, is that we are seeing a widely respected artisan in his garden, happy to be with his wife and two daughters, yet wearing a sharp suit and necktie. This is at once a family snap and a press shot.

We understand immediately from these photos that Sartory is a different kind of artisan, someone with a public image, someone prosperous who, while he might get his hands dirty, certainly doesn’t get his suit crumpled. This is a man who has other people to sweep up the workshop, to rough out the frogs, perhaps even to make his bows.

As buyers, we derive some reassurance from this – we admire success. Paradoxically, as musicians we are suspicious of it.

Classical music aspires to a different ideal, that of the solitary artist. Composers are at the top of the tree – like Arnie in The Terminator, they work alone. And they are meant to suffer, often terribly. Great music isn’t composed by a committee or a workshop. Classical musicians like to the think that their beloved violins and bows are made the same way, by solitary and (preferably) tortured artisans. No musician will thank you for telling them that Stradivaris are workshop instruments, that their Lupot was probably made by Pique, their Sacrampella by Gaetano Gadda or their Sartory by Jules Fétique. It breaks the spell…

So when it comes to Sartory, as with Vuillaume, we are torn between our admiration of the man’s urbanity and our mistrust of it. This is not so far away from the eternal dichotomy of every violin or bow purchaser, who is at once looking for a musical tool with magical properties and simultaneously a sensible, hard-headed investment.

A Sartory bow teeters along the knife-edge of these two opposing urges, for musical transformation and for guaranteed financial return.

It can’t harm that ‘Sartory’ is a word that most of the world’s peoples can pronounce. French is, at least for the non-French, a minefield of a language in which most sentences involve at least two convulsions of the mouth such as you might make when trying to extract a giant piece of cotton wool. The word Sartory recalls the name of a popular Japanese whisky – Sartory bows are undeniably popular with the Japanese, whose affluence has in turn helped to drive Sartory prices ever upwards.

English speakers who utter his name are already three quarters of the way to ‘sartorial’, and the photos we have of Sartory reaffirm that particular French virtue of elegance and show. We find that elegance in the bows too, not the skeletal and exquisite refinement of a Voirin, but a delight in materials, unerringly precise craftsmanship, and the love of bling… there is tortoiseshell and ivory, highly figured wood, gold, engraving, chasing – either Sartory had a particular love of these materials or it’s further evidence of his unique commercial gifts.

Gold and Tortoiseshell Sartory Violin Bow

He had the sort of clients who could afford to push the boat out, and his output of nickel-mounted ‘sad bows’ is very small and largely from his earliest days. Equally, there are few makers who produced so many bows dedicated or inscribed to the great musicians of his time – Ysaye, Thibaud etc.

We all know that Sartory employed various co-workers – Louis Morizot, Jules Fétique, and Louis Gillet, briefly Hermann Prell and perhaps Otto Hoyer – but they all made Sartorys. The model is unique, the quality control unerring. And while the bows are quite variable in character and while the model evolves over some 50 years, there’s a remarkable consistency in the execution and the finish.

Let’s be honest, there’s nothing rare about a Sartory – there are a hell of a lot of Sartorys out there, and that’s just the authentic ones. The sheer volume of sales, many recorded at auction, helps to sustain this astounding upward trend in pricing, since every dealer with a Sartory to sell consults the latest record price and adds 10%.

We see the same trend with Vuillaume instruments. And there’s a similar debate about whether they are actually ‘better’ or just ‘pricier’. A Sartory bow isn’t necessarily great – it’s not hard to find Jules Fétiques, EA Ouchards or even Louis Morizots which rival the best Sartorys – but it’s fair to say that Sartory’s batting average was higher, and that a greater proportion of his bows work.

Of course we’ve had a few duds. There are the ‘Bártok bows’, 64+ grams with a light tinsel lapping, which offer a violinist the subtle shadings of a tank aerial. There are incomprehensibly long bows which won’t even fit in a case – the urge to take a saw to the end of them is almost overwhelming. And then there are bows which don’t sound, which are a bit fizzy and inconsequential on the string. But overall we see bows which are strong, tonally rounded, well balanced and adaptable, and without undue eccentricity.

I love this photo of Sartory in his sixties. The affectation of the moustache is gone, but we see the same self-belief, the same unerring gaze of someone who knows they deserve to be photographed. The fashion has changed but Sartory has kept up, very much like his bows – now his wing collars are rounded and his necktie is vertical, but still the same wide lapels and fine cloth.

Eugene Sartory portrait

Perhaps Sartory is no longer quite so amused, perhaps he won’t go quite so far to please his clients, but his hair isn’t grey through worry. What we see in this photo is benign authority – this could be the face of a crown prince or a king, someone who might bestow gifts, someone with an understanding of precious things.

And maybe here we arrive at the essence of Sartory – that we are all still his courtiers.

Article by Martin Swan, December 2023

Photo Index: Eugène Sartory