State of the Craft

Eric Swanson - BowmakerEric Swanson – Bowmaker

The latest issue of Strings Magazine (Dec 2016) has an article called, “State of the Craft – Contemporary makers on the trade today, how it relates to the past, and the way forward“, with Jonathan Cooper, Yung Chin, Peg Baumgartel, Joesph Curtain and others answering the same series of questions.  I found their answers to be interesting and valid, but just a little bit too much on the positive, boosterism side of the equation, so I decided to answer the same questions more weighted on the realist, cynical side!  Enjoy.


Why is this an exciting time to be a bow maker?

First of all I reject the premise of your question. If you are asking what it’s like to be a bow maker and violin shop owner in 21st century America, I can only say that it’s challenging more than exciting. I’ve been self-employed for a little over 15 years now and went to violin making school over 20 years ago. I’ve seen a lot of attitudes in this trade stay the same rather than evolve. Oftentimes the changes pointed out by my colleagues are nothing more than the consolidation and codification of a kind of groupthink which has narrowed our field rather than expanded it. In terms of facts on the ground, there has been an atomization in the violin business. There are more shops and makers than ever, but they are all reaching for a slice of a shrinking pie. I believe it’s harder than ever for new entrants into the field to gain quality education and experience due to a number of factors including the demise of the large shop based workshops and an absence of any kind of business training. There is almost zero analysis of the current national and global economy much less our trade’s micro economy, but we’ve all felt the pressure created by increasing overhead at our shops and homes, and there’s no doubt that our customers are feeling the same squeeze. For new members of the trade, there aren’t a lot of shop based jobs where one can earn a living wage, much less learn anything of worth. I’m not so optimistic about the condition of the American violin making schools either, as their original founders have passed away or retired. Into this breach has stepped the Oberlin workshops which have been a tremendous resource for practical technical information, but at the expense of a deeper, more complete education. I believe that Oberlin has served makers and restores well, but it has also created an almost cult like sameness amongst its attendants and its organizing and leadership are opaque at best. Makers especially need to do more to show their differences from one another. It’s also harder than ever to sell new instruments, and I’ve seen a distinct rise in new maker prices that I believe is not due to supply and demand but the fact that when new makers do, in fact, sell a violin or bow they need to get as much money from the sale as possible due to financial necessity. The business seems to be continuously obsessed with its own self importance at the expense of looking at meta-issues of market practices, pricing, and industry self-regulation. I’m sure plenty of your respondents will extol the wonderful new era of communication and cooperation, but this is usually related to issues such as which plane to use, or a preferred drillbit or repair technique, not practical, moral and ethical questions related to actually making a living in this trade.

Where do you see your work fitting into the tradition of bow making?

The reality of bow making is that we are mainly trying to reproduce what we perceive to be the finest examples of historical bow making, namely 19th-century French work. We may have modern machinery and other materials available to us, but we’re really not doing anything groundbreaking. This is a craft based in tradition, but it does reflect our modern culture insofar that we are obsessed with mechanics and perfection over other issues.

What do you think players expect from the work of contemporary makers?

Depends on what kind of player you’re dealing with and at what level they are performing. One of the main issues with younger players is that they are not quite sure what a good bow actually is. There’s a lot of myth and unexplored concepts around how people actually shop for a bow. Due to economic circumstances, I think a lot of modern players are more open to new bow makers, however they still buy strongly into the concept that the older and more expensive a bow is, the better it must be. I think also the heavily promoted idea of bow or violin ownership as a means of investment has also made players more nervous about buying new bows, because they understand that that resale value just isn’t there for the most part. I think players want modern bows that makers have made with an eye on function over details like modeling. If a bow performs well as a music making tool, they will buy it, regardless of whether it would win a medal at the VSA competition.

How do you see the craft changing over the course of the next 20 years?

I think the main issue for bow makers specifically, is materials. Pernambuco and ebony are, without a doubt going to become harder and harder to use legally, much less sell or transport. Other materials such as mother of pearl, abalone and ivory will also be affected more and more. If I’m going to be completely realistic about this, there’s a good chance that we are seeing the last few generations of makers who will be able to legally ply this craft and have access to these materials in any kind of meaningful way. That doesn’t mean that there won’t be a demand for bows, it just means that it’s going to be a lot more difficult to make, buy and sell traditional wooden bows. New materials are already becoming more and more acceptable amongst professional musicians. The second issue is our culture and our economies. Professional symphony orchestras are under greater threat from management than ever and schools and conservatories are minting more and more new performance majors with greater and greater levels of student debt. As a trade we need to confront these realities in a forthright and logical manner.

What concerns do you have for the future of the craft?

I’m concerned that makers spend more time talking amongst themselves rather than with musicians. With bows especially I feel there is an over-emphasis on technical excellence. It is true that American bows are better made, by individual craftsman, from scratch, than ever in history. However these bows are not tested for playability in one of our largest making competitions, sponsored by the VSA. In order for a violin to win a gold medal it must get the highest marks from maker judges as well as accomplished player judges.  The bows are never touched by musicians in the judging process and are simply graded on their craftsmanship. I believe this is a major hurdle that must be overcome for the betterment of our craft. My other big concern is the issue of fraud and criminality, mainly in the dealing side of the business. I’m convinced that many players (and makers) have lost confidence in their local shops and dealers and are less willing or able to discern the good actors from the bad. There is very little being done within the trade to address these issues. We ignore these challenges at our peril.

What’s the best career advice you ever got?

That there is no quick way to success in this craft and trade. When I first started out with my own business I was given the advice that it would take a good ten years before I could be financially comfortable and confident that I’d have enough work coming through the door day after day. Also that you create your own reputation and reality by meeting the needs of your customers and standing behind your work. If you take your time, always striving to improve, and build a customer base that trusts you, it doesn’t matter what your colleagues or competition might say of you. There are those in this trade that have a certain amount of celebrity – amongst their peers mainly. Celebrity is really nothing more than being known for being well-known. Don’t try to be famous within the field, do your job well and earn a good reputation amongst your customer base.

If you could keep any one instrument or bow that you’ve ever handled, what would you pick, and why?

I don’t know that I would want to keep anything, but my musician wife and I love going to auctions or checking over collections for amazing bows that just have unique and beautiful playing qualities. One such item we have in the shop is a 7/8th violin bow, nickel mounted with a swan head, made by Prosper Colas circa 1900 according to its Millant certificate. It’s a cleaner example of the makers work, but it wouldn’t win a VSA beauty competition. However it is such a live, agile and lyrical bow. It drives with the sure footedness of a classic European sports car, leaps like a panther, and runs through the obstacle course of performance like a ninja!  

 

The Craft of The Connoisseur

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THE WRITING OF ROGER HARGRAVE

http://www.roger-hargrave.de/Seiten/english/Index/EN_Index.htm

Recently I ran across the website (above) of maker, restorer and expert Roger Hargrave while doing some online research.  If one clicks the “library” tab on his home page, you will find a series of incredible articles that he has written over the years for publications such as the Strad magazine.  Here you will find great essays on technical and historical issues relating to string instruments, but it is the series of pieces on the nature of connoisseurship and the violin market that I find most helpful.

His is a rare critical public voice in the current wilderness of over-commodification and increasingly unhinged pricing of violins and bows – a world where profit frequently trumps common sense and leaves musicians holding the bag.   I encourage you to look at some of the following articles he has graciously made available.

The Connoisseurs’ Craft and its Role in
Instrument Identification and Valuation
The Importance of Background Knowledge

http://www.roger-hargrave.de/PDF/Book/01_Identification_Backround_PRN.pdf

 

The ‘Sainton’ Controversy – Genuine or Fake?

http://www.roger-hargrave.de/PDF/Artikel/03_Sainton.pdf

 

The ‘Messiah’ Stradivari Controversy

http://www.roger-hargrave.de/PDF/Artikel/02_Messiah.pdf

 

Undercover agents

http://www.roger-hargrave.de/PDF/Artikel/Strad/Artikel_2000_10_Strad_nota_Strad_PDF.pdf

 

Pry Before You Buy -Buying an Instrument

http://www.roger-hargrave.de/PDF/Artikel/Strad/Artikel_2011_12_Pry_Before_You_Buy.pdf

 

The craft of the connoisseur – What makes a violin connoisseur?

http://www.roger-hargrave.de/PDF/Artikel/Strad/Artikel_2011_05_Craft_of_Connoisseur.pdf

 

 

Insecurity, Dogma and Myth

When talking to violin and bow makers about instruments and bows one has to realize that you are bound to encounter a lot of dogma. These people spend long hours doing meticulous work alone, oftentimes without recognition or any sort of support or approval from their peers and/or customers. I believe this fact combined with the surprising lack of meaningful understanding the lutherie field has of actual working musicians and their needs leads to the creation of certain beliefs which are accepted as gospel. The truth is that luthiers can be somewhat insecure individuals who have jobs that most people in society don’t understand or have trouble placing in a greater professional and economic hierarchy. I think these insecurities can lead to the exaggeration of one’s own importance. Consequently many luthiers over emphasize certain aspects of what they do. They tend to exaggerate their role in music and tone production, therefore creating many untested myths and technical principles. In fact it’s quite astounding how narrowly dedicated some members of this profession are to a certain technical ideology or belief system. There are some very good explanations for a worship of tradition such as the fact that most of us are busy either trying to re-create the artistic and technical accomplishments of the distant past or trying to maintain, restore and preserve antique instruments and bows. However, it is clear that both the violin and the bow would never have evolved if it weren’t for composers, musicians, and makers creating new and innovative music, techniques, and tools. This is why it can be so frustrating when one runs into such a pervasive atmosphere of myth, where professionals are so focused on the details that they become obsessed with them at the expense of seeing the bigger collaborative picture. Don’t get me wrong, understanding the relevant details and fundamentals of the craft is essential to doing good work, but it’s quite astounding how few of those in field work that way – from the bottom up so to speak. This is perhaps explained, at least in part, by the ad hoc professional education many possess, where they may never have been given a firm foundation to build on, unlike the many of the musicians they serve. There can be a thin line between a rational understanding of functional details and a kind of improvised voodoo designed to impress, redirect attention, and create mythology.

New Ivory Rules

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Revisions to the Ivory Law were just published.  While I haven’t read through everything just yet, here is some interesting information from the government.

From “Revisions to the Endangered Species Act (ESA) Special Rule for the African Elephant – Questions and Answers” PDF published by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

(https://www.fws.gov/international/pdf/questions-and-answers-african-elephant-4d-final-rule.pdf)

 

“I have a violin bow that contains a small amount of ivory. Under the final rule, will I be able to sell the bow in the United States, export it for sale, or take it overseas for a concert?

 

If the bow meets the requirements for the de minimis exception, including that the ivory was removed from the wild prior to February 26, 1976, and that the total weight of the ivory is less than 200 grams you will be able to sell it in the United States. If the bow qualifies as an ESA antique you will be able to export it for sale. If the bow meets the requirements for import/export of a musical instrument, including that the ivory was removed from the wild prior to February 26, 1976, it is accompanied by a CITES musical instrument certificate or equivalent CITES document, the bow is securely marked or uniquely identified, and it will not be sold or otherwise transferred while outside the United States (seeparagraph (e)(4) in the proposed rule text for details) you can travel with it internationally for personal use, including to perform in concerts.”

 

 

“What is the de minimis exemption?

The final rule provides an exemption from prohibitions on selling or offering for sale in interstate and foreign commerce for certain manufactured items that contain a small (de minimis) amount of ivory that meet the following conditions:

 

A) If the item is located in the United States, the ivory must have been imported prior to January18, 1990, or imported under a CITES pre-Convention certificate with no limitation on its commercial use.

 

B) If the item is located outside of the United States, the ivory must have been removed from the wild prior to February 26, 1976.

 

C) The ivory is a fixed or integral component or components of a larger manufactured item and is not the primary source of the value of the item, that is, the ivory does not account for more than 50 percent of the value of the item.

 

D) The ivory is not raw.

 

E) The manufactured item is not made wholly or primarily of ivory , that is, the ivory component or components do not account for more than 50 percent of the item by volume.

 

F) The total weight of the ivory component or components is less than 200 grams.

 

G) The item must have been manufactured before the effective date of the final rule.”

 

Read the full revised rules here (144 pages):

 

https://www.fws.gov/international/pdf/final-rule-african-elephant-4d.pdf

UPDATE: Alternative Headplate Materials

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During the Summer of 2014, I wrote a number of blog posts on the issue of ivory and potential alternative materials for use as headplates/tips.  Strad Magazine covered some of these issues in an article called, “What’s the Alternative,” in its Accessories Supplement published later that same year.   Although I wasn’t interviewed for the article I was named along with my colleague John Aniano and others as part of a group of bowmakers testing different tip materials.

On June 4th, 2014 I had posted an entry on a promising fiberglass/epoxy material called G10, which I had installed on a Hudson Reed bass bow belonging to a Chicago Symphony Orchestra member.  You can see it here:  https://swansonbows.wordpress.com/2014/06/04/ivory-alternative/

At the Oberlin Bowmaking Workshop that year, I gave bowmaker Rodney Mohr a piece of G10 to try.  A picture of a bow he tried it on appears in the Strad Supplement.

My blog posting made its way to the Facebook site of The American Federation of Violin and Bow Makers, of which I am not a member.  Soon after that I got a call from Matt Wehling, who had seen the article and found the material promising due to its strength and strong, obvious non-ivory grid pattern noticeable upon closer inspection.  Matt was interested if I wouldn’t mind him contacting David Warther, who had long supplied the field with ivory and mammoth tip blanks, to see if he might want to use G10 instead.  I had no plans to commodify the use of G10 so I gave Matt my permission to pass it on the David.

The result was Tip Armor which is now offered at Warther’s site here:  http://www.guitarpartsandmore.com/?nav=products&cat=27

It’s important to note that Warther’s headplate blanks are listed as being made of something called “AMW-814, a polymer composite” and that the term “Tip Armor” is a registered trademark of David Warther & Co.  I use it all the time and love the product.

The photo above is a picture of the the original G10 headplate as it looks today.  The owner dropped the bow and the only part that broke off was the very tip of the tip – the decorative part which stands unsupported above the wood of the bow.  You can see the line where I glued the original piece back on.  Not bad!

 

 

Refelections on Rehairing and Craftsmanship

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Last week I went off on one off my periodic rehair trips, this time to Cincinnati.   I do these working visits as a service to musicians who feel they may have difficulty accessing decent bow-work and as a kind of professional outreach which advertises the shop and what it represents.  I usually bring along some bows and instruments for sale as well.  These trips also give me the opportunity to have a beer or two with old colleagues, reconnect and compare notes.

There I was in a friend’s workshop with my little portable rehair “kit” doing about 15 rehairs a day, with no time to even stop for a bite of lunch, feeling somewhat overwhelmed and vulnerable.   I got to thinking about the fundamentals of rehairing, craftsmanship and the tenets of good business practice.  Those thoughts during those two insanely busy days are what have inspired this essay.

The main concept I want to emphasize is that rehairing is a service job.  It is not a fine art, although it certainly is a difficult craft.  There are certainly many ways of rehairing, but I for one don’t care which method is used, only that the result is good.  One must also realize that there is no single perfect rehair – customers have different expectations and preferences.  Because of this, it may take several rehairs before you and the customer can find the best result. Getting to know customers is important when doing rehairs.  Relationships take time as does building a successful bow business.  This is why doing a quick rehair trip in an area where you don’t know people can be perilous.

When I first started down the bow-work road, a more experienced professional in the field who worked only on violins expressed his fear of doing rehairs.  He said that one bad rehair or one failed plug could sink your reputation and ruin your career.   He regarded the whole thing as a high-wire act with little reward for the danger.   Often rehairs are done at shops by an anonymous, underpaid and often only partly trained employee, so the shop owner can blame any problems with a customer’s bow on someone else.  However, if you are a one man shop specializing in bow work, there is nowhere to hide and no one else to blame.

This is why changing bow hair is a service job, like a car mechanic.  The nature of the bow is that something will go wrong eventually.  It’s not a matter of if but when.  A person doing rehairs will see a customer and their bow three, maybe even four times a year.   The frequency of rehairs statistically increases the possibility that a wedge will fail, a knot will slip, a plug will pull out, the hair gets too tight/loose, or that some other small, yet important detail will just not meet the needs of the player.  It’s true that once the bow leaves the shop we have no control over how well the hair is rosined, whether the player over tightens or forgets to loosen the stick, if they play aggressively and break hairs, or if they keep their instrument and bow in overly dry or humid conditions.  However, it’s much smarter to take responsibility for one’s work than to place the blame on the player.

Some people take a long time to do rehairs, which is fine, but I do them quickly and have a high volume, which is necessary if one is to make any money at all doing this for a living.  When I first saw how Yung Chin was working when I visited him in the late 90’s, I knew I had found a way of rehairing and of doing business that suited me.  I offer clients same day rehairs at a price that is lower than most of the rest of the country.   I always tell new customers that a free lengthening or tightening of the hair is included (I build this into every rehair), that if they don’t like the hair I always have at least one alternative for them to try (at no additional charge), and that if they have any issues or concerns at all that they must feel free to contact me.  I’d rather have a customer return for a quick easy fix than feel stuck with something they don’t like.  In fact, most of my oldest customers are folks for whom I had to adjust or redo something.  Standing behind my work is very important to me and I’d rather spend 15 minutes redoing a rehair for free than lose a customer forever.  It’s amazing how many shops don’t get this.

One needs to develop a thick skin to specialize in bow work and rehairs.  It can be too easy to get carried away with your own importance or go the opposite route and take each and every issue that will inevitably come up personally.  Finding a good balance between self-worth and humility can be difficult when you work with your hands.  Some customers will come down on your for no apparent reason, or blow small issues out of proportion.  A musician’s bow is a highly personal item of so much importance, that some seemingly over-the-top reactions can be forgiven or at least better understood.   Many issues are the result of misunderstanding and/or lack of knowledge – here I work hard to educate and empower my clients.  I also want to say here that I have been on the receiving end of much thankfulness and generosity on behalf of my customers.  I have learned so much from them.  If you run your own business and work to build good relationships, you will weed out those who just will never get what you are doing, meet amazing people and advance your knowledge and happiness profoundly.

And please know that whatever you do, if your work in a service industry, you will run into problems. The trick is not to let problems take over by developing a way of running your business that quickly handles objections and complaints and realize that no matter how serious you are about doing the best work you can do, not everyone is going to like it.

 

 

 

Market Logic

 
From the documentary film on the art market and forgery:

Beltracchi: Die Kunst der Fälschung

“There’s and inherent market logic that penalizes depreciation, criticism and doubt, and rewards appreciation, euphoria, and calling something a masterpiece. If someone has a paining and asks, ‘Could it be a Derain?’, the expert will say, ‘It’s a Derain.’ The auctioneer’s excited. He can earn millions from the masterpiece at auction. The expert pockets a large commission. The vendor makes money, and the buyer is excited to see a Derain reappear on the market. None of the people involved in the system want it to be a fake.”

Niklas Maak

Art Critic

“Sadly in the art world there are more people who know how to make money then there are works of art. There’s a surplus of financial interests. And enormous sums of money whirling around. The record prices for art are broken every year.”

Sofia Komarova

Gallery Manager

Interesting parallels to the violin, and more specifically, the bow market, don’t you think?

Very Light Bows

  

Recently I have seen an influx of bows come through the shop that have heavy price tags and very light weights. Interestingly these have been predominantly cello bows purported to be by old French makers – although I’ve seen at least one 19th Century English bow.

These bows are being sold for multiple tens of thousands of dollars and the heaviest bow was 75 grams, the lightest, 72grams. Let us remember that the industry standard for cello bows is 78-82 grams, for viola bows, 68-72 grams. The bows were in the proper balance range, so adding more overall weight without seriously affecting playability would be nearly impossible without using extraordinary measures like the addition of lead plugs. 

So why is this a concern? In previous posts I have pointed out that many dealers are overly obsessed with reaching an “ideal” weight with bows (usually in the middle of the accepted range) over considerations of correct balance. I also stated my belief that bows that are above and below the accepted weight ranges can be great sticks if one keeps an open mind. So here we have very light bows that are correctly balanced, are very pricy and by famous makers. The concern from a functional standpoint with an exceedingly light bow is that it will feel unstable, want to fly away and won’t have adequate weight to want to stay on/in the string. On the positive side a light bow can be more agile, may have smoother bow changes, and be more resonant. So a light bow can be good or bad. Many fine musicians I know lean towards lighter more flexible sticks.

My main worry with these cello bows is the price tag based on advertised provenance combined with the unusually light weight. I mean, a 72 gram cello bow is basically a short, tall viola bow, even if it is stamped, “A. Lamy à Paris”. At some point unusually light (or heavy) weight must affect price. Sure, a dealer might tell you, “Look, this bow was made by a famous maker so therefore the price must be in this range even though it’s slightly light”. One worry is that the tune of dealers may change when one who has purchased such a light bow goes to sell it. This concern of mine is due to the obsession with provenance over function that exists in the violin business. Often times bows with elite provenance will be priced higher despite serious functional deficits, however when a dealer is purchasing or taking a bow in on consignment the story will change and the message to the the seller or owner will be “Look, this bow has a lot of problems,I can only charge so much,” making room for greater profit on behalf of the shop owner.

If you love light bows and want to buy one, by all means, go ahead and get one, just think twice about how much you are willing to spend. Resist “investing” in an expensive bow that has variables too far from the mainstream. The problem is when bows by “fancy” makers which have serious issues cross paths with dealers pushing the investment angle, creating high pricing. In the world of fine violins, there can be a tremendous difference in prices by a single maker. You can buy a two million dollar Strad or a 16 million dollar Strad, due to a whole host of reasons including condition and modeling. However, there seems to be a smaller price range available for those seeking to buy fine bows, the only exception being bows that have had their heads broken in half, been repaired, and had original frogs and buttons removed and replaced. Even with damaged, partially original bows such as these I have seen exorbitant pricing.

So if you are determined to buy a light bow by a historical maker that is a safe investment (as far as amateur investment can be considered safe), or at least hold its value over time, please consider the following guidelines:

1) Be as confident as you can about attribution – think about what kind of verification and history the bow comes with.

2) Check that the bow is as close to the industry accepted lower end of the weight range (78 grams for cello bows) as possible, is original in all its parts and free from serious defects.

3) Buy from a reputable shop that will stand behind the sale, will take the bow in on trade at its original price and will actually still be in business in future when you are ready to sell or trade.

4) Be sure the bow is offered at a fair price. Do your research.  Get a second opinion. 

5)  Make sure you really love the way the bow plays.  

6) Fully insure your new bow once purchased.

In a future post, I will delve more deeply into issues of commodification, speculation and concepts of investment with respect to the violin business. Overall I would caution players against speculation on instruments for profit and advise them to purchase bows based primarily on playability and value.

Bow Mounting Materials

  
“The mountings, that is the frog and button, are of all possible combinations. The type of mounting depended upon one’s ability to pay. Since the mounting adds nothing to the playing qualities of the bow, it is purely decorative. The professional string player at the time being poorly paid would have no reason to request or purchase a bow mounted with expensive tortoise shell and gold.   That would be reserved for wealthy amateurs. In addition, tortoise shell is a fragile material and would not stand up to the many hours of daily playing of the professional. The most commonly used mountings were of ebony and silver. In the bows of Pajeot one sees many and ivory and silver as well.

The least expensive metal used in the frogs and buttons is German silver. It is in fact neither German nor silver, but rather an amalgam of copper, zinc and nickel made to imitate silver. It is an economy measure. The invention of this combination of metals was done by two Frenchman in 1829 and is known as Maillechort, a composite of the names of the inventors, Messrs. Maillot and Chorier.  We thus know that any bow with original mountings with this metal was made after 1829.”

Sydney Bowden, Pajeot – 1991

The Bow, its History, Manufacture & Use

  
“In an earlier section of this work I alluded to the bow as being ‘tongue like’; it is something more, for is also the breath of the violin. As breathing is to a vocalist so is bowing to a violinist. It governs the phrasing, or, rather, is governed by it in the first instance and then controls its delivery to the listener.  Thus it will be seen that too much attention cannot be paid to the real Art of Bowing.  By which I do not mean the brilliant tactical feats of arpeggio, staccato, tremolo, etc., but the pure legato bowing of cantabile passages.  It is in such song-like movements that the true artist reveals himself by the nearness with which he approaches that highest of all musical instruments, the human voice. Pure liquid tone, the inflections suggested rather than insisted on, clear phrasing and avoidance of all extravagance are the hallmarks of an artist, and not the possession of brilliant technique alone. To those who are content with superficial glitter electro plate is as good as sterling metal. But critics of discernment (by which I do not mean all those who write concert notices for the daily papers) require something of more lasting value.”

-Last paragraph from The Bow, its History, Manufacture & Use by Henry Saint-George, 1896