I first met Bill Watson almost 55 years ago just outside of London in Denham, which is where he lived and worked. At that time I was in the midst of building my own career. I had just gotten to Los Angeles and began working with my father-in-law, Paul Toenniges, and my wife, Nancy, at his shop.
Being of German origin, I was often sent over to Europe two or three times a year to do some buying – instrument supplies, bow supplies and materials. Little by little I became more familiar with the European market, learning what was available in England, Germany, France and Italy. So I made my tours and over the years business relationships and friendships developed.
That’s how I met Bill Watson. I knew him as most knew him. He was a fine craftsman and a fine human being. He was honest, forthright, generous and gentle. Our relationship lasted more than half a century.
At that time Bill had already reached the peak of bow making. He had started with W.E. Hill & Sons and, like all the makers there, he began at the bottom of the ladder, making chinrests, working on cases and doing menial work. But, little by little, the more experienced craftsmen began to notice that Bill had talent and ability. They took him in and began to teach him what they knew: that’s how these things were done.
Bill was taught how to make bows by some fine craftsment of the old Hill & Sons family. They were highly efficient, skilful and artistic, and they knew he possessed all those attributes too. Back in those days, Hill & Sons was the world’s leading violin company. If you came from there, you had a reputation for knowledge and expertise. First class instruments, bows and equipment passed through their hands.
Over the many years that I made business trips to Europe, I always stopped in London first to visit Bill. We became very close friends. He was like a brother to me. We’d have lunch, drink a couple of pints of beer and share conversation.
As I’ve said previously about my relationship with Jascha Heifetz, with whom I worked for many years, for the first 30 minutes we’d talk business and then we sat down to make mustard together. With Bill, for the first hour or two we’d talk business. Then we’d travel all around England visiting and having a great time, or we’d meet in Germany at different places with his wife.
Bill was the kind of man who was very willing to share what he knew. People like that are rare
Our relationship flourished over what we shared in common, which were musical instruments, bows, strings and wood. That was our bond. Bill was the kind of man who was very willing to share what he knew. People like that are rare. And he did help me an awful lot, not just with English bows, but also French ones. He knew everything about the makers of these bows.
Our families were close too. Bill would come to the US to visit our shop and my family, and my family went to Europe to meet him and his family. When I sent my son, Eric, over to visit Bill they instantly bonded. It was a perfect match of two very passionate people. Bill became Eric’s godfather. He offered that to Eric out of love and respect for Eric and our friendship, which was something we both knew was sacred.
Bill ended his career as a world-renowned expert on all matters of bows and anything to do with Hill & Sons. But he was a humble guy and never bragged about himself. His work spoke for him. If you look at a Bill Watson bow, it is clearly top quality: the standard of the workmanship, the way it plays and the way it feels to musicians. His bows are flawless.
Bill didn’t need to be patted on the back. But I’m certain he knew his worth and the mark he left on this industry. In the latter part of his life, people sought him out to solve mysteries and to get insight. Why Bill? Because people appreciate not just an opinion, but hearing the truth. Bill didn’t offer guesses. He knew the answers because of his experience.
Bill could tell a piece of ebony from Madagascar from a piece of ebony from India just by looking at it. When you look at something for so many years, and you examine it and you even dissect it, you see the patterns and similarities and differences. You know at once what to look for. Experience is what makes an expert; nothing will ever replace experience.
Bill could tell a piece of ebony from Madagascar from a piece of ebony from India just by looking at it
Bill certified countless bows and he was on juries in the musical instrument business for many years. He had a great deal of credibility.
His reputation was earned entirely by word of mouth. There was no internet; there were no ads in newspapers. Word of mouth was, and still is, the best way to earn your reputation because real, credible people have experience of you. When you’re in the business for as long as Bill was, your reputation is a huge asset.
When you have someone like Bill in your corner, your reputation rises. No violin or bow maker knows everything. You rely on your friends and colleagues to get the answers and solve the mysteries, and then your reputation rises.
There are many experts out there, but Bill was one-of-a-kind. Everyone loved and respected him. He never pushed himself onto anything or ahead of anyone. That’s who he was. I miss him terribly.
Violin maker Hans Benning founded Benning Violins in Studio City, California, with his wife, Nancy; the firm is now run by his son, Eric Benning.
Bill Watson is one of the makers included in the recently published book, ‘The Hill Bow Makers 1880–1962’ by John Milnes and Derek Wilson.