By Louise Lee
Let’s say you’re finishing up your college degree and are ready to launch your professional career, taking some local auditions and entering a few competitions. You might be looking to upgrade your violin to one in the $10,000–$15,000 range. If so, you’re in luck. “There is a wide variety of options at this price range,” says Aaron Johnson, director of instrument and bow operations at Shar Music in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Here’s what you should know about these instruments and what to expect as you shop around.
In this price range, “you can expect a known maker with a reputation and track record,” and can expect the maker to have taken plenty of time to adjust and refine the instrument, says Jay Ifshin of Ifshin Violins in El Cerrito, California. Generally, contemporary violins, or those made in recent decades, in this range are most likely to have been made by a single person from start to finish, often completely by hand with traditional tools. That means that the instrument will benefit from the work of a maker with the deepest and most instinctual knowledge of its every element, ensuring all parts and materials work together in the optimal way.
That deep familiarity influences “the way a maker transitions from one part of the instrument to the next,” adds Matthew Fritz, director of sales and acquisitions at Carriage House Violins, a dealer outside Boston. Given the complexities of the measurements and materials that go into the process, “you’re limited to how nuanced you can be when you have multiple hands working on an instrument,” he says.
Playing an instrument made by a single luthier is important to some players for emotional reasons as well. The bond between players and their instruments can be powerful, and they appreciate knowing that “there was a maker with an equally personal connection with the instrument and who put the same amount of care into it,” says Johnson.
By contrast, contemporary instruments below $10,000 are likely to be factory-made, or constructed by more than one person, each working on a different part of the instrument. While those instruments are still often excellent, they sometimes lack the quality of one made by a single maker who saw the instrument through from start to finish.
In this price range, you can also find instruments made in the early 20th century. They’re likely to have been factory-made, perhaps in France, Italy, or Germany, but “the value of ‘old’ has put them into this price range,” says Fritz. They’re likely to be “the cream of the crop of factory instruments,” including some from traditional European centers of violin making like Mirecourt or Markneukirchen, he says. But because of these instruments’ age, players need to closely examine their condition and discover what parts may need repair or replacement.
As with other instruments, the prices for these instruments reflect the longterm reputation of the maker and how well it has held up in the marketplace, as well as the choice of materials and quality of construction. Players also should consider the longterm value of the instrument—a matter that will be important when it’s time to sell or trade it in. In general, instruments in this price range retain their value, especially if they were constructed by a single maker, dealers say.
At this point in a player’s career, he or she should try out as many instruments as possible during the search. “For players looking to step up from a $5,000 instrument to one in the $10,000 to $15,000 range, their tastes are more refined and they’re looking for specific sound qualities, so they usually need to try harder to find a match,” says Johnson of Shar Music, which has bulked up its inventory in this range in recent years. For instance, he says, Shar has
in its inventory a mix of “new American and German makers on an upward trajectory,” as well as modern Italian makers such as Giorgio Grisales and Roberto Collini.
Compared with luthiers producing less-expensive instruments, “these makers are farther along the career path,” says Johnson. “They’ve proven their ability to produce an excellent instrument.” Shar also sells French and German instruments from the late 1800s and early 1900s, which have appreciated in value.
Many European instruments from that time period have “come into their own,” says Ifshin. “The wood is old and the tone has stabilized.”
There are also instruments in this range that bridge the gap between the many hands involved in making factory instruments at a lower price point, and the single-luthier-made instruments found in this price range, and far beyond. Knilling, for example, early this year introduced its Nicolo Gabrieli line, which includes $10,000–$15,000 instruments made from seasoned European tonewood and built by hand in a United States shop by a team of three makers. Varnishes, which the shop describes as made with a “classic formula,” are mixed in the workshop and applied by hand. “It’s an instrument that lets the player easily transfer to a higher-end instrument,” she says. “It has the complexity and performance, and focus and breadth of colors that let the player develop.”