From different worlds, two men meet to make the successful enterprise Ifshin Violins
by Erin Shrader
This article first appeared in the June 2009 issue.
“You might want to point out that Jay Haide is a combination of our names, Jay and Haide,” says Ifshin Violins owner Jay Ifshin. “We get calls for ‘Mr. Jay Haide.’”
Jay Haide (pronounced Hi-duh) is the brand name of a line of violins, violas, cellos, and basses, and the product of a longtime collaboration between Ifshin and his shop foreman Haide Lin. On this day, the two men are seated in one of the large trial rooms in the spacious home of Ifshin Violins—after over 20 years of cramped quarters in Berkeley, California, Ifshin’s recently moved a few miles north to neighboring El Cerrito. The shop, which received an extensive “green” remodel, is so new that the last bit of trim has yet to be installed.
Both men are in their 50s, wiry, and full of energy. Lin—a colorful story teller, even in a second language—is more animated; the dapper Ifshin is drier and more focused on the business.
Their shared passion for violins is obvious.
Lin and Ifshin started making violins at about the same time, but worlds apart. Ifshin was a diesel mechanic from Miami, Florida, who started playing violin on a Suzuki instrument. “With my mechanical background, I thought it shouldn’t be too difficult to build an instrument that was better than the one I was renting,” he says.
He arrived in 1974 at the then-newly opened Violin Making School of America, in Salt Lake City, tool box in tow. “I was very fortunate to have Paul Hart as an instructor,” he says, “I couldn’t imagine a better teacher.”
Hart taught his students to look discerningly at the instrument’s curves and forms. “That was the most valuable lesson he taught me,” Ifshin says. “And patience. You can’t rush violin making.”
Lin was born in 1951 thousands of miles away in the ancient Chinese city of Guangzhou. He was the violinist son of two doctors who were able to give their children music lessons, a luxury few could afford at the time. “My dad always took [us] to concerts,” says Lin, who remembers as a child seeing the London Symphony Orchestra. “That’s how I started to learn music.”
But his family was forced to split up and leave the city during the Cultural Revolution, a decade of social and political turmoil that swept through China between 1966 and ’76. “I was in the countryside for six years as a farmer,” he says.
Still, Lin continued his violin studies, rising at 6 AM to bicycle more than 30 miles into the city for a lesson every week. His determination paid off. “Later, I got a chance,” Lin says. “Only one from thousands of people got a seat in the orchestra. Changed my life.”
That seat in the orchestra allowed Lin to return to Guangzhou. After two years, he earned a spot in China’s first violin-making school when it opened in 1975. His teacher, Guo-Hui Liang, had taught himself to make violins in the 1950s by buying two good German instruments, taking them apart, and copying them. Liang taught his students about art to help develop their eyes, and students also studied music to develop their ears.
“I have very good ears,” Lin says. “If an instrument changes just a little bit, I know right away.”
Back in the States, Ifshin Violins was thriving but the workshop was short-handed. A colleague recommended Lin, and after a great deal of effort, Ifshin finally succeeded in bringing Lin to California in 1986. “I went to pick him up at the airport and he was skinny as a rail,” Ifshin says. “They didn’t feed him over there.”
Lin vividly remembers his first American meal, a hamburger: “It was a big one!”
It wasn’t long before the two began a violin-making enterprise. In the early ’90s, Ifshin couldn’t find a reliable source of student instruments for his shop. “We were at the mercy of whatever the [workshops] would send,” Ifshin recalls. “Germany, China, Japan—we had to depend on inconsistent quality. So we decided to develop our own instruments. Initially it was for our own shop. We’re selling them worldwide now.”
The Jay Haide instruments, made at the company’s Chinese workshop, are modeled on such historical makers as Stradivari, Guarneri, and Guadagnini. For violas, Maggini. Models range from simple student instruments with a straight finish to detailed, antiqued reproductions of individual instruments, such as a Tommaso Balestrieri, part of the top à l’ancienne line. The company also makes Baroque instruments.
“We do special orders,” Ifshin says. “Sometimes players want a copy of what they have. We’re patterning our workshop on those big workshops from the 1920s, French shops like [Jerome Thibouville-Lamy] and Marc Laberte. They didn’t have just one maker; there was division of labor. You get the best fellow who can do arching. That’s all he does all day long. You train someone how to do rib bending and that’s all he does. The makers who do scrolls can cut three, four, five scrolls a day. We combine all those skills in our workshop and the result is a Jay Haide à l’ancienne. And that’s how we can sell the Jay Haide instruments at a reasonable price.
“The French shops, they had collections of great Italian instruments that huge workshops would refer to—Vuillaumes, Stradivaris, Guarneris, Guadagninis—all the big instruments.”
The Jay Haide workshop also has a safe with good instruments for reference. “If [the violin makers] have a question, they can come and look: the purfling—what’s the style?” says Lin, who visits frequently to train workers, always carrying something special for them to study.
“If the airline knows I have a million-dollar instrument, they give me a better seat!” he adds with a laugh.
“We handcuff [those instruments] to him,” Ifshin quips. “We do a lot of training. We’re constantly saying, ‘This is what the great masters look like. This is what we’re going to style our instruments on.’
“My goal is to produce an instrument with the highest quality,” he says, “not just another workshop instrument. If that means producing less, that’s fine.”