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U.S. violin-makers thrive despite Chinese competition

WASHINGTON (AFP) ― American violin-making is enjoying a rebirth, craftsmen say, despite the rapidly improving production by fellow makers in China which artisans here see both as a threat ― and a boon ― to their livelihood.

Even with U.S. interest in classical music slipping, and some orchestras folding in harsh economic times, support for the artisans’ business is such that hundreds of individual American violin-makers are thriving.

“Violin and bowmaking in this country is the best it’s been in U.S. history,” and the instruments being produced are among the world’s finest, Jerry Pasewicz, who heads the American Federation of Violin and Bow Makers, a collection of 180 top U.S. artisans, told AFP.

Whether China can mount a serious threat to the high end of the craft ― known as lutherie ― is in dispute; some believe it will take several decades before Chinese instruments, which now dominate the student market, come close to rivaling the best violins of Europe and the United States.

But China’s massive production ramp up over the past decade is introducing large numbers of aspiring musicians, including thousands in China itself, to the art of playing the violin.

“As they start to grow up, they seek a better instrument,” said Pasewicz, who has been making violins for three decades and owns a shop in Raleigh, North Carolina.

Feng Jiang, a violin-maker in Michigan, says the state of American lutherie is nothing short of “a renaissance,” thanks to institutions like the Violin Making School of America in Salt Lake City, Utah, and the Chicago School of Violin Making.

“In the past 15 or 20 years it’s increased a few hundred percent,” he says of the number of U.S. makers.

But “the only reason we exist at all is that people are playing the violin.”

That is where China is having its dramatic impact. Violins were hardly played at all there until Mao Zedong, the founder of communist China, considered it a revolutionary instrument and workshops sprung up during the 1966-1976 Cultural Revolution.

The Asian giant has squashed European low-end makers and now manufactures the bulk of student instruments ― so many that it has dramatically brought down entry-level costs for violinists and allowed dealers to set up broad rental networks.

Not just in the West, but in China, the largest untapped market.

Jiang has a foot in both worlds. As the son of a Chinese violin maker, Jiang built his first instrument in China as a youth in 1989. In the late 1990s he moved to the United States, where he now makes six to eight violins per year.

He sees tremendous potential for China’s artisans, several of whom have trained in Europe and the United States, closely studied ancient instruments by masters Antonio Stradivari and Giuseppe Guarneri del Gesu, and returned to improve the quality of violins in their homeland.

Still, “for the violins that professional people appreciate ... I think we don’t see a lot come from there,” Jiang says.

But some believe China, with a 5,000-year history of craftsmanship and a reputation for rapidly absorbing the skills necessary to dominate an industry, will rival Western production within a decade or two.

U.S. luthier Christopher Germain routinely travels from his Philadelphia workshop to China to meet fellow craftsmen, and says “all the components are in place for them” to become a force in the high-end industry.

“They do whatever they need to do to improve their product,” says Germain.

Dave Belazis of Foxes Music outside Washington says that while China’s craftsmanship has revolutionized the student violin industry,” he doubts their instruments will knock top American products off their perch.

“America is producing some of the finest instruments in the world right now. It’s the first time in the history of violin-making the Americans have an edge in the industry,” he said.

Americans have won gold at the International Triennale, known as the Olympics of violin-making, in Stradivari’s home town of Cremona, Italy. U.S. maker Kelvin Scott won bronze at the latest competition, in 2009.

The very top tier of American luthiers number little more than a dozen, experts say. Among them is Christophe Landon who makes a handful of instruments a year, selling them to the world’s greatest players for as much as $60,000.

Landon, who is French but has lived in New York for more than half his 51 years, sees it not as an us-versus-them battle, but a global community whose savvy use of the Internet has helped them share technological expertise.

“The level of violin-making is much higher than it used to be,” he said from his Manhattan studio, where he is producing a replica of a true gem: a Guarneri violin dating from 1734 and valued at $4 million.

Expertise is rising worldwide, and he sees “fantastic” promise in Chinese makers as they absorb international skills and methods.

Violinist and dealer Stefan Hersh agreed that Chinese makers have evolved quickly, but added: “I don’t think that China as an entity will ever truly be a threat to the top of the violin world.”

Lower down the ladder is where the “China effect” is being felt, Hersh said, and that is what could squeeze mid-level and new American makers.

“Quality violins coming out of China make us all look over our shoulders and do better work.”
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