Black German velvet? Custom inlay or gold fittings? Tough enough to survive a car crash? Buying an instrument case—when money is no object
Case shopping is usually an exercise in compromise, balancing weight against protection, carrying capacity, comfort, and price. We take a deep breath and choose between the black cover and the grey, sigh, and resign ourselves to repeating the whole exercise in a few years when the new case wears out, wishing secretly for just a little bit of . . . style.
What if you could have it all?
Safe enough for a Strad, lightweight, elegant, in the material of your choice—with even a special place for your eyeglasses? What if you saw your beloved instrument luxuriously ensconced in your favorite colors, every day? In a case built to last a lifetime?
What if price were no object?
Chances are your dream could be made real by one of a small, international cadre of craftsmen who build cases worthy of the rarest violins. Several of them are, in fact, violin makers who found themselves intrigued with the unexplored creative potential in cases: the satisfaction of solving a design problem, improved safety for the violins they love, an outlet for the artistic eye, and an untapped market. The best case makers combine the skills of an engineer, entrepreneur, woodworker, inventor, and interior designer all rolled into one.
Small wonder that violin making alone did not contain their curiosity and creativity.
The difference is not always obvious at first glance (indeed, commercial manufacturers are constantly taking their cues from these innovators). But closer inspection reveals a level of ingenuity, attention to detail, and elegance that makes ordinary cases seem, well, ordinary.
Compared to the price of a major repair, fine cases are a bargain. Some case makers mentioned in this article offer simple but elegant and extremely safe models starting at around $600. And $900 to $1,200 should buy a very stylish off-the-shelf model, while made-to-fit and custom models cost more. How much more? That depends on your taste.
Skilled craftsmanship and fine materials make an immediate impression. Cordura—the same rugged synthetic material used in US Army backpacks—is the nearly unanimous exterior fabric of choice, although Negri makes a case in leather. Covers fit perfectly with seams neatly trimmed in materials that will not crack with age. D-rings for carrying straps will never come off. Interior compartments close smoothly with just the right amount of resistance.
Flawlessly executed upholstery work makes even the simplest interiors a delight to behold. Individualism and tradition reach a harmonious balance in the choice of interior materials. Among the options are sumptuous silk velvet, natural cotton suede and velour, glove leather, and all manners of satin. Maurizio and Carla Riboni’s cases are lined in solid colors accompanied by a patterned silk blanket. Case maker Dimitri Musafia had satin woven with the design inlaid on the 1677 “Sunrise” Strad. LeRoy Weber experimented with nature scenes inside the top, just for fun.
Some makers will give a customer free rein with interior materials while others insist on maintaining at least veto power over potential fashion disasters. It takes experience to know what will and will not make a beautiful violin case. “In the end, it’s my name that goes onto the case!” says Musafia, who learned that lesson the hard way. Still, interior design and amenities are arenas where the case maker’s ingenuity can shine and wishes can be granted.
For musicians who “live” in their cases, thoughtful details can make life on the road just a little easier.
When Isaac Stern came to Weber for one of the very first suspension cases, he requested a mirror, a place for his comb, and a holder for his eyeglasses. Weber not only invented the suspension case, he built in hygrometers and humidifiers, and added subway handles. A look at the 600 series confirms that he has considered every possible way a case might be carried. His most recent invention is a holder for the shoulder rest that folds neatly under the neck of the instrument, freeing up compartment space.
Musafia offers an accessory compartment that will light up upon opening so you can find your necessities backstage, while Alexander Caballero will fit a reflective strip unobtrusively into the binding of his case covers for musicians in Switzerland who commute by bicycle.
Quality fittings are another signature of cases built to last. For example, the cool, slate-colored latch of a Michael Gordge case clicks smoothly shut like the lock on a bank vault.
Musicians love Riboni’s distinctive leather-wound chrome handles and padded straps, according to instrument dealer Claire Givens, who offers his cases in her Minneapolis violin shop. Musafia handles are screwed on rather than riveted, which eliminates the need to damage the case simply to replace the hardware.
Caballero takes this one step further and sinks receptors into the wood so there will be no future damage from new screws. He also uses three hinges instead of two. Ribbon stops take the strain off the hinges, increasing longevity. Gordge cases come with leather carrying straps, and use leather for compartment handles, zipper pulls, and ties to hold the neck in place.
Brass corner guards protect the corners of Riboni’s bow cases. “There is a responsibility in manufacturing to protect the instrument for the time it rests within the case,” says Dominik Musafia. His brother’s cases have been entrusted with the protection of many of the world’s great instruments. One of those is “The Cannon,” Paganini’s legendary del Gesu. “The case we made for the Cannon was custom-made to measure, with reinforcements against impact, thermal insulation (which we call ‘Tropicalization’), and all the safety features we normally put into a high-end case,” says Dimitri Musafia. “Basically, it was a case that anyone can buy, except that we used a specially milled silk velvet with a pattern that I designed and had produced.”
Elegant finishes and thoughtful amenities may delight the user, but the case maker’s best efforts go unnoticed until disaster strikes. “‘If I treat it well nothing will happen,’ that’s what people think,” stresses Weber. “But accidents happen.”
He illustrates that point with the example of a young violist whose father fell asleep at the wheel. “It was a terrible accident, the car was totaled,” he relates. The viola was thrown out of the car and landed some distance away, the case punctured. “The kid was still in the hospital when the father brought me the case. He was afraid to open it.” The viola had been merely knocked out of tune. He made the family a new case.
In the never-ending tug of war between weight and protection, cases have undergone great structural design changes in recent years. After many experiments, wood remains the preferred shell material, with several makers using lightweight six-ply poplar laminates. Reevaluating the distribution of that wood—adding layers in the most vulnerable areas while lightening the areas that take less impact—has resulted in greater protection with less weight.
Weber raised the arch in the top of his 600 series, further increasing strength. Since joints are the weakest point, corners, which take the most impact, are bent rather than joined like a picture frame. Where joining is necessary, Caballero uses special waterproof glue, and he clamps rather than stapling the pieces together for gluing. You can work more quickly with staples, he says, but staples corrode over time, weakening the structure.
The shapes and layouts of cases are evolving, as well. The Ribonis further rounded off the corners, making a more oblong shape that is structurally sound and also lighter and more compact than the traditional rectangular shape. Tilting the instrument inside the case allowed a gracefully curved interior compartment in the newest Musafia model. Musafia managed to fit a smallish viola into a violin-size shell to reduce weight for an injured violist. Riboni’s small, lightweight double-violin case is the size of a viola, making it easier to bring onto airplanes, according to violin maker Joan Balter, of Berkeley, California. “Speaking as a dealer, this makes such a nice presentation,” she adds, appreciating the tastefully understated style.
Weber relocated the large accessory compartment, traditionally found above the scroll, to the opposite end of the case. Should a bow spinner let go, the frog would fall harmlessly on the compartment lid rather than damaging the violin.
Aside from structural improvements and the suspension pads that are now virtually universal, additional safety features can be built into cases. Musafia offers several as custom options on any of its cases, including waterproofing, special puncture-resistant fabric, a valance-and-groove closure, and “Tropicalization,” an additional layer of padding and space-blanket–like material under the cover that slows down changes in temperature. Riboni cases can be ordered with a combination-lock or alarm system.
Some companies simply offer excellent quality in their standard models. Others welcome custom work. “I like seeing the people happy,” admits Caballero, whose clientele includes dealers, soloists, and orchestra players. The best way to get a Caballero case is to visit his atelier in Lucerne, Switzerland, near the concert hall. Like an appointment with the dressmaker, a picture is drawn, the instrument’s measurements taken, colors and materials chosen. Then your case is made while you are in town.
Although he is a successful bow maker and Cremonese-trained violin maker, “I enjoy my time making cases like bows,” he says. “I make cases out of passion.”
Sometimes the greatest reward for that effort is the smile of the recipient. Caballero once built a case commissioned for presentation as a gift to a well-known musician who was quite indifferent to the idea. “We knew the favorite colors of this person.
We made this case with mahogany, hand polished with shellac. Black German velvet . . . and gold pins with imitations of diamonds on the tops.”Seeing the inside of the case, the player exclaimed, “This is the most beautiful case I have ever seen!” The violinist immediately put the Strad in the case and offered a beautiful smile.
Musafia offers several standard lines, but all can be ordered with custom options. He enjoys a challenge, such as weighing every component of a case to engineer the absolute lightest case for that injured violist. Or the three-year collaboration with virtuoso violinist Salvatore Accardo, which completely changed the structural design of Musafia cases. The case maker concludes, “Making violin and viola cases one-at-a-time and allowing for their customization is not the most efficient and profitable way to produce them, but it is certainly the most creative and gratifying. I have dedicated my life to artistically crafting violin and viola cases as best as I can and take great pride in doing so.” LeRoy Weber has also dedicated much of his career to making the best possible case. Nearing retirement age, he recently downsized the case-making operation and returned to his early love, violin restoration. He now makes all the cases himself, and most are custom orders.“They all end up being a little different, anyway,” he says, as he continues to think of improvements to be made.
Case Makers Mentioned
Farnham Caseworks (formerly MA Gordge Cases Ltd.)
Musafia Cremona Italy
Weber ceased making cases since this article was first published.