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Chinese Vs European Instruments
We often get asked about the origins of the violins that we’re selling and our customers are very interested in whether the violin they’re considering has been made in China or Europe.
I think many people have this romantic idea about where violins come from and they’d love to think that their violin has been carefully hand-crafted by an amazingly skilled violin-maker with decades of experience. Of course, these violins exist, but sadly if you want a violin that’s been hand-made by an experienced violin maker in Europe, using only the best tone wood, it’s going to be expensive. We of course sell these violins but you should expect to pay tens of thousands of dollars for them. Something aspirational to aim for but not achievable or even necessary for most players.
What we’re talking about today is violins for intermediate to advanced players. Probably not your first violin, but maybe your first upgrade.
Once you’re paying a few thousand Australian dollars you’ll find that this is a cross-road where you’ll find some high-quality, very well-made Chinese instruments as well as entry-level European instruments.
Ultimately we’re asking ourselves a question about value. How does the manufacturer aim to provide the best value in their product. To answer this there are a few things we need to consider.
Number 1 - Materials
European manufacturers unsurprisingly tend to use wood sourced from Europe. Traditionally our industry has put a higher value on European wood as opposed to Chinese wood. The origins of this date back to the time of Amati and Strad who for obvious reasons used this wood, and these are considered the best violins ever made.
When we’re talking about ‘affordable’ instruments however, you have to understand that while the wood is European, it’s definitely not the best that Europe has to offer. Manufacturers can only spend a small amount on the raw materials because labour is so expensive. So at the entry level for European instruments you can expect to find instruments that are fairly plain in their appearance. They will also tend to only dry the timber for the minimum amount of time until the wood is stable enough to make the instrument which may be just 2-3 years.
In China, it’s a completely different story. Chinese manufacturers tend to use wood sourced from China, though these days some are sourcing wood from Europe. (More on this in a minute). In China, the labour costs and material costs a quite different. Wood that is more plain in it’s appearance is very affordable and tends to get used on entry level Chinese instruments, so we’re talking about violins that might only be a few hundred dollars. So by the time you get to a violin that is priced at a few thousand dollars, the wood used tends to look spectacular. Lots of flame, good density and resonance and seasoned well past the minimum… sometimes several decades.
As mentioned, some Chinese manufacturers also offer their instruments made with European wood. This is great in theory but just know that you will be paying a premium for this. Remember that great wood is very expensive and while you may be getting European wood, it might be of a much lower quality and seasoned for a far shorted time than you’d otherwise get from that same manufacturer.
Number 2 - Varnish
It takes a very long time to train someone to varnish a violin well. Even when you know what you’re doing, it can take many hours to varnish a violin to a high standard. If you’re buying an entry level European violin, you have to understand that they can only allocate a very small amount of time to varnishing that instrument. This means that they have to use a commercial varnish that is usually sprayed. It also means that there is very little time for creating visual interest in the varnish, so you’re unlikely to see much in the way of shading or antiquing.
In China on the other hand, there is much more time that can be spent on this process. Remember, most things are done by hand in China so you’re much more likely to get varnish that has been applied by hand and you’re more likely to be happy with the visual interest created by shading and antiquing.
Number 3 – Hand-made
The next question we often get asked is, is it hand-made?
I think instinctively many customers think that if something is made in Europe, as opposed to China, it must also be hand-made. The fact is, most European workshops that are producing affordable violins, do so by using sophisticated machinery to carve out some of the complex shapes and parts needed to make a violin. Even in our own workshop we use CNC technology to provide a consistent outcome without having to rely on human hands.
In China, it usually makes more sense to pay people to do these jobs, rather than to use machines. I’ve spent a lot of time travelling around China and Europe visiting different commercial workshops and I can tell you that on the whole, there is much more hand-work visible in Chinese workshops than in Europe when we’re talking about affordable violins.
Ultimately, whether it’s hand-made or partially machine-made, you should be more concerned about whether it is well-made.
Number 4 - Set up
I wanna talk about setups for a minute because this is also an important point. Chinese and European workshops in this price range both do a great job at producing a violin body… that is, the top, back, sides and neck, put together and varnished.
The set-up is the rest of the equation and arguably more important than the body itself. I’m talking about the fingerboard, nut, bridge and soundpost.
These parts are much more difficult to systemise in a production line and require much more skill to get right.
For this reason, we mostly do not entrust our suppliers with this task and we do all of our setups ourselves in house. This gives us complete control over the parts of the violin that are most used by players. We can also make our own adjustments to suit our Australian climate, which is very different to where the violins are initially made, whether that’s in China or Europe.
Another important aspect of set up is the actual parts used, including the strings. Whether it’s made in China or Europe, it’s really important that the set-up is done using high quality parts. We usually use bridges and soundposts from Germany or France and Strings from Germany or Denmark, though France and the USA also have great strings.
Number 5 – Sound
Sounds is always a big consideration with whatever instrument you’re purchasing. It is hard to generalise but we have found that many Chinese instruments tend to have a big, bright and powerful sound. To balance this out we often set up these instruments in a warmer style. European instruments in the same price range tend to be inherently a little warmer with more of a complex sound. We tend to set these up with a brighter set up to balance the warmth.
At the end of the day, if you’re asking about where a violin is made, it’s probably because you’re trying to work out if you can trust the quality of that instrument. In my experience, this question is much better aimed at the retailer as opposed to the manufacturer. If you buy from a reputable violin shop, in most instances you can trust that they’ve done the hard work finding a violin that they believe has been well-made. They’ve probably also gone to great lengths to make sure that it is set up well and playing great.
At The Sydney String Centre, part of our core philosophy is to go and see where our products come from. For that reason we often travel to China and Europe to visit the workshops that are making instruments for us. Doing this we believe gives us the best idea about how our violins are made and gives us confidence that our customers will be happy with whatever they purchase from us.
Ultimately we only want to sell great-sounding instruments. Everyone has their own idea about what the ‘best’ sound is. The only way you’re going to find your sound is to get to your local violin shop, and start playing.
If you come and visit us at The Sydney String Centre, you’ll be able to see a large range of both European and Chinese instruments in different price ranges. We’ve got private testing rooms and you can be paired with one of our friendly violin experts to help guide you through your next purchase.
We would love to see you in store! If you’ve got any questions feel free to leave a comment below,
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