By Greg Cahill
It don’t mean a thing, if it ain’t got that bling. Traditionally, violins are supposed to be aesthetically unadulterated, though even the great masters were known to include a carved tailpiece, decorative pegs, or ornamented scroll on their creations. Indeed, the tradition of decorating instruments is as old as violin making itself—lavishly appointed scrolls were common in the Baroque era. The Spanish Quartet, made by Antonio Stradivari between 1694 and 1709 for Spanish royalty, sport vine-like designs on the scrolls, ivory inlaid tailpieces, and forest animals painted on the sides. The quartet accounts for four of the 11 decorated Strads in existence.
These days, string players are taking an even more playful approach to the look of their fiddles, from fancifully carved scrolls and imaginative paintings to fine tuners and tailpieces that glisten with brilliant Swarovski crystals.
To make each of her instruments unique, and to add a touch of inspiration or even humor to a player’s musical life, luthier Anne Cole paints a picture inside the sound cavity of every violin, viola, or cello she crafts in her New Mexico studio. “One customer came in early on in my career and he said, ‘Do you think could make a viola for me and I could give you a picture of my dog and you could put it on the inside?’ and I said, ‘Yeah, sure,’” she told Forbes. “Little quirky things like that happened. That’s how I evolved my idea.”
German luthier Susanne Küster, featured in the December 2018 issue of Strings, has carved unicorns, eagles, horses, rams, griffins—and a few too many Medusas—mostly on commission for the contemporary Baroque market. “I’ve done that a few times,” she said of the intricate, time-intensive Medusas with a laugh (carving the heads can take up to 40 hours). “And after each one, I’ve thought, ‘It’s too complicated. I won’t do that again.’”
And then there’s Baroque Bling. A decade ago, string musicians Lauren Chipman and Ann Marie Calhoun found themselves travelling together on a months-long rock tour accompanying new-age superstar Yanni through Central America and the United States. Backstage and on the tour bus, the musicians began talking about their fascination with bedazzling and the use of Swarovski crystals in costumes, particularly the way those crystals caught the light. Soon, glue guns in hand, the pair had fashioned a line of decorative mutes and tailpieces. Calhoun has moved on to other pursuits, but Chipman continues to operate the company and has landed domestic and international distribution deals for her Pinterest-ready products.
The company has inspired Etsy stores, such as the Norway-based Pimp Your Strings.
Melissa Hamlin, an orchestral violinist, told Strings she enjoyed peering down and seeing the sparkle of her crystal-studded Baroque Bling mute. “Being an orchestral musician, I love having a non-traditional accessory while often performing very traditional classical music,” she said. “I also love the juxtaposition of the sparkly mute with my 19th-century instrument.” And, she added, “It’s always fun to meet random musicians from all over the country who have the mutes. . . . It’s like being a part of the cool kids’ club.”