By Greg Cahill
Thomastik-Infeld is marking its 100th anniversary as an industry leader in the manufacture of instrument strings. But its story really began five years before its founding, in 1914, when Viennese luthier Franz Thomastik, who held a doctorate in philosophy, filed Austrian patent No. 69060, which described the flat-wire winding he planned to wrap around a steel core for use on a stringed instrument.
That patent revolutionized the string-making industry.
In 1919, shortly after the end of World War I, Thomastik teamed up with engineer Otto Infeld to manufacture the first steel-core strings. At first, the men headed separate companies that worked in tandem on research and development looking for ways to make steel a suitable substitute for gut strings. After two years, they combined their resources to create the company that is now known as Thomastik-Infeld, a family-owned and operated firm still based in Vienna, Austria. Over the years, that two-man shop has grown to almost 200 employees worldwide, and management has changed several times, but the founders’ commitment to quality has been carried down through the years.
“Generation to generation, each family member involved in the company has had the same passion for music, innovation, and product development. Each has embraced the same idea of sound and of craftsmanship. It is literally a DNA thing,” says Nina Haberlehner, director of marketing at Thomastik-Infeld for the past four years. “What I discovered [when I began working here] is that Thomastik-Infeld is not only family owned, it is a family. CEO and owner Zdenka Infeld calls the company her family. And that is reflected in the personality of the company.
“That’s also what musicians who come to visit us here in Vienna feel. They often say, ‘It doesn’t feel like we’re visiting a company, it feels like we’re visiting friends and family.’ That feeling also draws people to work here; often our employees stay right through to retirement, which is a really rare thing in the business world. It’s the atmosphere—everyone is trying to create new ideas and to improve our products and that’s something you feel when you come into this place.”
During the past century, the company has revolutionized the string market and changed the game repeatedly with the introduction of steel-core, spiral-core, and hex-core strings. Today, Thomastik-Infeld holds 80 patents for unique technologies, more than any other string company, and manufactures strings for violin, viola, cello, and bass, as well as six-string and electric bass guitar, oud, and erhu. It has sales in 86 countries on all five continents. Among its most enduring products are Dominants, a violin string with a synthetic core and flat-wire winding. Margaretha Infeld, the late wife of the company co-founder, was responsible for the naming of the Dominant string and played an integral part in bringing this product line to international fame. As violin students, Itzhak Perlman and Pinchas Zukerman were among the early users of Dominants.
But while quality assurance and consistency are hallmarks of Thomastik-Infeld, the company has weathered its share of changes. By the beginning of the 1930s, the company exported 50 percent of its string production—Great Britain and the United States were the most important markets. Those exports stopped with the outbreak of World War II and the Nazi occupation of Vienna in 1938. The subsequent Allied bombing of Nazi-occupied Austria, throughout World War II, leveled the company’s offices and production facilities. The company rebuilt and reopened in 1946, one year after the end of the war. Thomastik-Infeld attained pre-war production levels in 1950.
The following year, it underwent restructuring after the death of Dr. Thomastik. At that time, Otto Infeld acquired the whole company. Magaretha Infeld and her son Peter assumed control in 1965 after the death of her husband. They eventually moved the company to its current location in the Margareten district of Vienna and built on the company’s reputation for innovation, earning the Golden Order of Merit for services rendered to the Republic of Austria. Upon Peter’s death in 2009, Zdenka Infeld acquired ownership and became CEO.
Today, the company is meeting a number of challenges, including the proliferation of inferior counterfeit strings manufactured in China and packaged to resemble the Thomastik-Infeld brand. But the company is staying abreast of its competition, using the centennial to create a higher profile online, staging a four-month exhibit at the prestigious House of Music in Vienna, and expanding its artist-relations program.
“To stay current with the needs of musicians, the company works closely with professional string players to develop new product lines,” Haberlehner says. “One thing we do is to educate players about what strings can do for their playing. So, we teach them the tricks of the trade. Many musicians learn to play an instrument at a conservatory or at a university, but they don’t get much instruction about what the strings themselves can do for their sound, even though strings make up a large proportion of the instrument’s sound. So, this year, because we want to play a big part in the education of musicians, we decided to put online the information they should know.”
Recently, Thomastik-Infeld introduced the complete Versum Solo line for cello, which, Haberlehner says, is designed for power, response, and optimal projection. “Product development is a part of our future, since we are always trying to find new ways to meet the demands of the musicians,” she says, adding that getting the word out about the company’s efforts brings considerable personal rewards. “Every single time we have musicians come in to talk to our technical development team, to try out new strings and to see what they can improve through little tricks, the players come in with a very serious look, but leave with a bright smile—that’s something I enjoy the most.
“This is a brand that is 100 years old and yet there is so much potential within those halls that has not been communicated to the outside world. To be able to tell those stories is something that I find very rewarding.”