Laura Brownell  

Would You Buy a "Made in China" Violin?

Laura Brownell
April 19, 2019

Editor's Abstract (Click to Hide)

When Laura Brownell needed to find a violin quickly, she visited the Remenyi House of Music in Toronto and became enamored of a beautiful violin that, surprisingly, turned out to be made in China.

Laura presents an interesting discussion of the quality of current Chinese-made violins, and the threat Chinese makers pose to traditional European violin workshops. She interviewed Michael Remenyi, the owner of the Remenyi House of Music, to find out his concerns about these instruments and the factors that cause him to offer them in his shop.

Finally, Laura discusses the role that Chinese-made string instruments will play in the lives of professionals musicians.

- Ann Drinan
Chinese-made stringed instruments have taken the market by storm. In just a few short years the impact on musicians, makers, and dealers has been profound. As is often the case with an upstart new entrant to a manufacturing market, there are positive and negative effects. These will be discussed later in the article but my own encounter serves as a good illustration of what this phenomenon has meant for professional musicians.

It was the fall of 2008. After 14 years with the AFM Symphonic Services Division, I had just started a new job. I needed to play a gig – any pensionable gig – in order to qualify for my AFM pension. I hadn’t played in years but this wasn’t the first time I had tried to make a comeback after a hiatus of several years. I was pretty sure it was just like riding a bicycle…

I secured a gig with the Niagara Symphony and set out to acquire a violin. I had been pleased with my past experiences with Remenyi House of Music, so I made my inquiries and paid them a visit with the intent of renting a violin for a month in order to prepare for and play this engagement. Upon my arrival, I was placed in a room with a number of violins which I later learned were all in the $2000-3000 range, a price range that would not normally include professional-quality instruments. And sure enough, there were the usual sturdy and reliable square-shouldered Germans, red-varnished French fiddles, and other competently made but unremarkable instruments.

Except for that one in the corner. It practically glowed, it was so beautiful. It had a gorgeous golden-brown varnish and the look of a fine old Italian violin. I picked it up and began to play, instantly enamoured of its rich yet refined tone. It didn’t take long before I was standing at the counter saying, “This is the one.”

Imagine my surprise and amazement when the clerk wrote on the sales receipt, “Made in China, 2008.”

It turns out, not surprisingly, that I am one of thousands of professional musicians who have reacted in a similar fashion. Chinese-made instruments are not (yet) the instrument of choice for primary use. But many professionals are buying them as second instruments. In many cases, Chinese-made instruments can easily compete with much higher-priced European-made instruments. To be able to get such quality for such a low price was previously unthinkable. It is no wonder that endorsements are piling up and professional use is on the rise.

What is the cause of all of this? The answer is globalization, the opening of free markets in China, and cheap Chinese labour.

The entrance of Asian countries into the western musical instrument market is not a new phenomenon. The Japanese Yamaha brand is a household name that is synonymous with well-engineered, mass-produced quality pianos, wind instruments, and percussion equipment. But it is China that now, as an emerging economy, has the fundamentals to be a major player in a market that until recently has been dominated by European makers – stringed instruments of the violin family.

The Chinese are highly motivated to excel in this business. They value music for its impact on personal and intellectual development. In China, every child between the ages of 6 and 9 is required by law to learn to play a musical instrument. Building on the passion of the Japanese for western music, and possessing the essential resources of cheap, well-trained labour and a good supply of tonewood in the Himalayas, China has seized the opportunity to become a leader in the production of stringed instruments. A turning point came in 2003, when the Chinese government first mandated that all “national industries” must make a profit. The quality and quantity of these instruments has dramatically increased since then, although the rapidly evolving industry feels like a jungle on steroids. Like China’s entire economy, the stringed instrument production business is growing like wildfire in a fashion that often seems out of control.

Almost three years after my brief but intense 2008 experience, I approached the owner of Remenyi House of Music, Michael Remenyi, to find out what the dramatic rise of Chinese-made instruments has meant for him. I learned that Mr. Remenyi continues to champion European-made instruments as his core business, despite the fact that he can make more profit on Chinese instruments. A sense of heritage and tradition are at the heart of this decision but he has some sound business reasons as well.

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