The Oldest Business In America
IT DOESN’T LOOK LIKE AN ESTABLISHMENT A CENTURY and a half older than the Republic, or one built around a technology devised by an alchemist. The Avedis Zildjian Company is in a big modern building, where it makes the world’s best cymbals for jazz, rock, and concert musicians. But each cymbal begins with the mixing of a bronze alloy by a secret technique that has been handed down for fourteen generations, since 1623.
“It is a romantic story,” says Colin Schofield, Zildjian’s vice president of marketing worldwide. “The firm is owned and operated by the original family, and we’ve just witnessed a succession. Armand Zildjian, who is seventy-eight, has announced that his daughter Craigie will take over after him.”
The saga begins 377 years ago in Constantinople, when an alchemist named Avedis came up with an improved material for cymbals. For this he was rewarded with the name Zildjian, which meant “cymbal maker.” “Then,” Colin Schofield says, “not too much happened for the next three hundred years. Cymbals were mainly used by armies to intimidate enemies. They were introduced into classical music in 1680, but for the Zildjians they remained a small thing to do on the side.
“In 1927 Aram Zildjian, who was old and in failing health, wrote to his nephew Avedis, who had moved to America, and said, ‘You’re the heir. It’s time to come back and take over.’ Avedis said no way. He had a successful candymaking business. But his wife, Sally, kept urging him to consider it, and in 1929 Aram came over and taught him the secret.”
They set up a factory in Quincy, Massachusetts, copying as closely as possible the one in Turkey. As it turned out, the timing was perfect. “It was just when Gene Krupa appeared and swing came in,” Schofield explains. “The modern trap set was evolving. The next big turning point was when the Beatles arrived. By the end of 1964 we had 90,000 cymbals on back order, after which trap sets got bigger. We moved from Quincy to Norwell in 1973, and for the last twenty years our focus has been on improving quality. Today we’re turning out two thousand of the world’s best cymbals a day.”
As you approach the factory area, you reach a double door with a sign reading RESTRICTED AREA—NO CAMERAS . The alloy secret (which is also held by a company in Canada founded by a renegade family member) is not the only one in the plant; there are other proprietary technologies three and a half centuries younger, involving computerized hammering techniques.
Inside the factory one wall has what looks like a garage door in it with another warning sign: ABSOLUTELY NO ADMITTANCE WHEN RED LIGHT IS ON . Behind this door is the melt room, where the alchemist’s magic is worked. The red light is glowing. Schofield says: “All I can really tell you is that there are two people in there, and they start with eight sticks of copper and two of tin. The secret lies not in the formula—that’s a standard proportion of copper to tin for bell making—but in the particular way of combining them to make the metal strong and durable.”
We walk around to a space beside the melt room, and he shows me what comes out of it: thick bronze pancakes about 10 inches across, weighing up to 16½ pounds. He picks up two and bangs them together so I can hear them ring. One of the two men in the melt room sticks his head out its back door, under another red light, and banters with Schofield: “Hey! Get out of there!”
These castings go through a series of heatings and rollings after which they look like floppy oval sheets of aluminum about two feet across. Then they are cupped, getting a bell-like rise at their hub, and tempered, by being plunged into water. This oxidizes the tin, turning them a bronze color and leaving them resembling oversize potato chips.
After that they are sheared into a circular shape, machine pressed, and pounded by Zildjian’s computerized hammering machinery, whose precisely determined patterns bring out the specific sound qualities of the cymbals far more evenly and accurately than hand-held hammers once did. Finally they are lathed, to finish their surfaces, edged, buffed, stamped with the company name and logo, and tested for both sound quality and appearance.
“The original secret,” Schofield says, “is certainly one of the reasons we have 60 percent of the world market in cymbals. People have tried to duplicate it, but they’ve never succeeded. Once somebody even killed himself trying.”
How do you become one of the stewards of such a tradition? Schofield, who is English-born, says, “I have a degree in biology, but I was always a fanatical drummer. I had a chance to go to work for England’s distributor for Zildjian. That’s how I ended up here. Almost everyone in marketing and customer relations is a serious drummer. Some of us have been here thirty or forty years.
“I feel, and I think most of us feel, the way the members of the family do. It’s our turn to nurture this wonderful institution and pass it on to the next generation. There’s a serious attitude here that when they come to write the history books, they’ll see that the present time was just our turn.”