The Asian nation has become a major player in the US stringed-instrument market
by Kevin McKeough
The violins, violas, cellos, and double basses can be found in shops from Berkeley, California, to Des Moines, Iowa, from New York City to Charlotte, North Carolina. They’re sold under such names as Andreas Eastman, Johannes Köhr, Andrew Schroetter, and countless others. But no matter how European-sounding their names, many of these shiny new stringed instruments on display in stores throughout the United States share a common origin: China.
Indeed, thousands of stringed instruments on the U.S. market now hail from a country far removed geographically and culturally from the European tradition of string music, and this Asian nation has become a major lutherie center.
As recently as five years ago, there was little love for Chinese-made violins among American instrument buyers and sellers. Since then, however, those instruments have taken the market by storm—especially at the introductory student level—thanks to a combination of improvements in quality and low prices made possible by cheap labor costs.
Yet it’s impossible to say how many workshops and factories in China are making and manufacturing stringed instruments. “I’ve been to dozens of them, and I don’t think I’ve even scratched the surface,” reports Stephen Sheppard, president and owner of Tucson, Arizona-based retailer Southwest Strings. “It’s a big country.”
What’s In a Name?
Like many domestic manufacturers, distributors, and retailers, Southwest Strings has become an active partner with the Chinese violin industry, selling both factory-produced instruments under the Klaus Mueller label and workshop-made instruments in the Yuan Qin line.
Even the stores that carry these instruments don’t always know who has made them. “We don’t know where the workshop is unless our suppliers tell us,” explains Matt Zeller, an apprentice violin maker at Donley Violins in Charlotte, North Carolina. “We have suppliers who have family-owned workshops and others who will deal with anyone.”
That confusion is widespread. “It’s laughable how much rebranding and mismatching and criss-crossing is going on,” adds Jason Torreano, product manager for the string brand of the Music Group (formerly Boosey & Hawkes Musical Instruments), which sells its Chinese instruments under the Andrew Schroetter brand. “I wouldn’t be surprised if [a single] instrument workshop in China was producing instruments that in the U.S. are being sold under ten or 20 names.”
In fact, the import and sale of Chinese stringed instruments has become so widespread that there’s literally no way to tell all the names under which they’re being sold here. Many of the instruments come to the United States unlabeled, and wholesalers and individual shops attach labels to them that give no suggestion of their provenance. “They’ll take an Italian-sounding last name and stick a first name on it, like Medici Alfredo,” Zeller observes.
“Different shops do varying levels of additions,” Torreano elaborates. “Some will buy instruments in the white and then do varnish and setups. Others will regraduate tops, put in the bass bar. Others are buying them completely made and just putting in a label and adding strings. Once they put their own shop label on it, you won’t be able to track a lot of Chinese instruments, because at a certain point they lose their original identity.”
To complicate the question of instrument origin further, violin makers in other countries also are importing Chinese-made instrument bodies in the white and finishing them in their shops. This practice allows luthiers in Germany, for example, to claim that the instruments are German-made, since 40 percent of the work (the legal minimum) is performed there.
For consumers and dealers intent on identifying the origin of their instrument, the profusion—and confusion—of names and labels for Chinese-made instruments poses a dilemma. Fortunately, by all accounts the quality of many of these instruments is good, especially by the standards of the beginner level at which they’re having the greatest impact.
It wasn’t always so.
A Dramatic Change
Not long ago, Chinese stringed instruments were maligned as not much better than firewood. The great improvement in their quality is one example of how the advent of a free-market economy and globalism in China has changed both Chinese industry and Western commerce.
In the past, according to Sheppard, Chinese instrument making was done under the control of the Communist Party, which put political bosses in charge of manufacturing. “The bosses didn’t know anything about violin making,” he says. “That’s why the violins had such poor quality. It didn’t matter if you made a good instrument or not. With the recent political reforms, [manufacturing operations] now have to make a profit. Therefore, they need to let the free-enterprise system take over, and they have to make good-quality instruments.”
The results of that change—prompted by a Chinese government edict that all national industries must eliminate graft, switch to a free-market model, and turn a profit by 2003—have proved impressive. “Generally, they’re pretty good,” Zeller says of the Chinese-made stringed instruments he’s seen since the political reforms took effect. “I’ve got to say I’m impressed with the quality of the instrument you can get at a low price. They’ve brought the low end of the market way up in quality while still keeping the price at a low point.
“For the beginning student they’re the absolute best out there, because you can get a better quality instrument than a European instrument for several hundred dollars.”
Zeller also admires the overall workmanship of the Chinese instruments he sells, particularly the graduation on the tops and backs and the Strad-model f-hole placement. Although varnishes on instruments below the $600 range tend towards what he calls “shiny lacquer stuff,” past that point instruments typically come with a good-quality spirit varnish. The most common problem he encounters is necks set at the wrong angles, which Zeller says is typical of all instrument makers in the lower price range.
And because China is home to some of the planet’s last great stands of old-growth forests, the tonewoods used in the instruments also get good reviews both for durability—Zeller admires the tight grain of the spruce tops, the flame of the maple backs, and the warp-free necks on the instruments he’s seen and for sound. Eastman Strings has captured the lionshare of the stringed instrument market in China, and is now the largest U.S. manufacturer producing violins there.
“Tonally, the Chinese woods are usually regarded as providing a warmer, less penetrating sound,” says Joel Becktell, vice president of Eastman Strings, whose Samuel Eastman, Andreas Eastman, and Mark Moreland instrument lines all are handmade in China by expert craftsmen. “The European tonewoods have a reputation of being more brilliantly focused in their sound.”
Thanks to this improved workmanship and the availability of high-quality hardwoods, there is an abundance of excellent Chinese violins, violas, cellos, and double basses available in the United States. In particular, many of the people interviewed for this article singled out the instruments made in China under the supervision of renowned California luthier Scott Cao for praise. The Johannes Köhr line of instruments distributed by Alabama’s Howard Core Company is also highly regarded by industry peers as are the Eastman and Jay Haide lines.
On the other hand, observers also warn that China continues to be a source of some terrible violins, particularly the low-price models sold over the Internet. “When you get down to the $200 ones, there should be a law against selling those things,” complains Bill McClain of Atlanta Street Violins in Roswell, Georgia. “They’re just selling objects, not real instruments.”
He says many of these cheap Chinese violins come with warped fingerboards and poorly fitted bridges and soundposts.
“The setup on them is so horrible that they’re virtually unplayable,” concurs Richard Ward of Ifshin Violins in Berkeley, California. “The bridges are not even fitted, they’re just thrown out there.” Ifshin sells its highly regarded Jay Haide line of stringed instruments, which are handmade in Chinese workshops but set up in the States.
Ward also warns of Chinese instrument makers who cut corners during construction by leaving out interior parts, or who use painted white wood, which wears out quickly, instead of ebony or rosewood for the fingerboard and pegs.
Consumers must rely on retailers to steer them toward the better instruments because of this variance in quality, the difficulty of distinguishing between good and bad violins by name, and the fact that most Chinese instruments are made and priced for student players (or their parents) who have no knowledge of what to look for in an instrument. “You have to be sure you’re at a reputable shop that knows what they’re doing,” Matt Zeller recommends. “You get a lot of people on the Internet who are really just selling trash.”
Despite the presence of junk instruments, many Chinese-made student-level violins offer exceptional value at relatively inexpensive prices, which generally range from about $400 to $800 at the retail level (although they can go much higher and lower). As a result, they’ve quickly taken over a commanding share of the market for new string-music students. By some estimates, Chinese instruments now hold between 50 and 80 percent of the market for novice violinists.
What’s all the more remarkable about this market penetration is how quickly it happened. “About three years ago was when it really started to take off,” says Alex Weidner, managing partner of the Howard Core Company. “You go back five years, and if you came in with a Chinese violin, people were really skeptical. It has been a dramatic change.”
China vs. Europe
That change has come largely at the expense of European violin manufacturers, whose labor costs prevent them from competing with Chinese instruments on price and whose reliance on machine manufacturing now sometimes leaves them behind in quality as well. Michael Becker, co-owner of Becker Fine Stringed Instruments in Des Moines (which sells Eastman Strings violins), recalls that for years the standby instruments for beginners came from such manufacturers as Glaesel, Knilling, and Scherl & Roth. “Those were the names that you ran into constantly for entry-level students, and I think the Chinese instruments have given those instruments competition.
“Today, young players have infinitely more options than I had,” adds Becker, who in addition to running his music store is a teacher, chamber musician, and violinist for the Des Moines Symphony.
Yet, European violin makers still reign supreme at the higher levels of the violin market. “You don’t find [many] high-class instruments [in China], with few exceptions, and those few exceptions will have difficulty being recognized as such,” says master violin maker and dealer Fritz Reuter, owner of Fritz Reuter & Sons in Lincolnwood, Illinois, who sells the Snow line of Chinese workshop violins.
For students who have reached the intermediate to advanced level, let alone professionals, the attention to detail found in European and American hand-crafted violins makes them the instruments of choice. “You’ve got the experienced makers making the high-quality product,” acknowledges Weidner. “They’ve been doing it for generations. To make a superb instrument, they’ve got the knowledge. To make a student-quality instrument, you can train some workers [to accomplish the task with minimal skills]. To get the detail you need as you move up the ladder, experience is needed.”
Pockets of resistance to Chinese instruments still remain on the student level, as well. In some cases, schools have had such bad luck with inferior Chinese instruments in the past that they have discouraged their students from renting them. In others, cultural biases remain an obstacle. “Some people will always want a European instrument, they’ll always want a German violin,” notes H. R. Core, marketing manager for Howard Core Company.
For the most part, though, acceptance of Chinese-made instruments has been growing steadily, a trend that not only is affecting violin manufacturing and sales, but also is having beneficial effects on an entire generation of aspiring string musicians. There’s little doubt that over the long run the increasing accessibility and affordability of higher-quality Chinese instruments will benefit buyers and sellers alike.
“Because there are so many inexpensive instruments out there,” Jason Torreano says, “the number of kids who are starting on stringed instruments is multiplying.”