The violin as we know it today was first developed in the 16th Century by the great Italian luthier family, the Amati. One of the finest violin makers living today is Brooklyn-based Samuel Zygmuntowicz who has made violins for the entire Emerson String Quartet along with the Grammy award winning virtuoso Joshua Bell. It comes as no surprise then that the waiting list for a Zygmuntowicz violin is a long one.
You have to assume that every identifiable feature of the violin has an acoustic and a structural effect, and changing something will have a corresponding effect
Eugene Drucker, the founding member of the Emerson String Quartet, owns a 1686 Stradivarius violin and a 2002 Zygmuntowicz. He swaps between the two depending on the venue and his mood. However, he believes an original Zygmuntowicz is best suited to the larger venues around the world due to its superior quality. He says, “in a large space like Carnegie Hall, the Zygmuntowicz is superior to my Strad. It has more power and punch.” So what makes a Zygmuntowicz so special?
Zygmuntowicz developed an obsession with instruments from an early age. When he was only 13 he made a fully functioning flute from a discarded reed using only a Swiss army knife and a round file. This passion continued through his adolescence culminating in working for a workshop at the age of 16 before attending the first trade school of its kind in America, the Violin Making School of America based in Salt Lake City.
Even during the term holidays Zygmuntowicz would work as an intern for Carl Becker, an instrument maker in Wisconsin, where he slept in a cabin without running water next to the workshop. The foundations of a master craftsman had been laid and the young apprentice had hand-picked his path.
Following graduation in 1980 Zygmuntowicz took a job with Jacques Français and Réné Morel, two restorers based in New York. The job paid $180 a week, a low wage but he gained valuable experience working on instruments made by masters like Antonio Stradivari and Giuseppe Guarneri.
Each evening he spent more time refurbishing violins at home to bring in some much needed extra income, with the hope of getting his big break. In 1984 he finally achieved his dream when he sold a homemade violin for $6,500 to one of Français’ former customers. The rest is history. In 2003 a violin built by Zygmuntowicz for Isaac Stern sold for $130,000 at auction – the highest price paid for a string instrument by a living maker at auction.
Today Zygmuntowicz is recognised throughout the world. Tim J. Ingles, Director of musical instruments at Sotheby’s, believes, “there are no more than six people who are at his level.” And there is no question this is down to Zygmuntowicz’s extraordinary attention to detail.
Zygmuntowicz works an average of 15 hours a days routinely but produces just half a dozen instruments each calendar year with a five-year waiting list of around 30. Nowadays his violins cost roughly $53,000 and his Cellos $90,000. Upon deposit Zygmuntowicz makes the promise that the instrument will be made within five years. However, if the client does eventually lose patience Zygmuntowicz is more than happy to return their money in full.
Zygmuntowicz revealed in an interview with Forbes he uses a variety of different wood, including spruce from the Dolomite region of Italy for the front of the violin; flamed maple from the Balkans for the back and outline of the instrument; willow for the lining; dyed pear and poplar from Italy for the inlay and Sri Lankan ebony for the fingerboard. Pegs and tailpieces are made from mountain mahogany from Oregon.
But making a good violin doesn’t end with the hands, you have to use your ears as well. Any slight variation on the body of the instrument can change the acoustics. Zygmuntowicz explained to Strings magazine, “Violins are sophisticated, delicate, and complex. Until proven otherwise, you have to assume that every identifiable feature of the violin has an acoustic and a structural effect, and changing something will have a corresponding effect. The more you know the more you can tell about the effect of each feature.”
With this in mind he began to experiment with a cheap factory-made violin he called ‘Gluey’ on which he stuck various pieces of thin, varnished wood to test for their effects. He also uses acoustical testing apparatus which was designed by audio engineer, Norman Pickering, which uses software to check the accuracies of the sound of a violin in the latter stages of completion.
Zygmuntowicz is truly a master of his trade who remains obsessed with bettering his craft. However, making violins for him is more than simply a skill, in fact, it is more akin to playing a game of chess: “You need to understand how the moves you make now will behave further down the line.”
Check out this beautiful video from Made in Brooklyn to see this master craftsman at work.
For more articles on music please read:
Sources: Forbes, Made in Brooklyn, and Strings Magazine