China made violins selling under non-Chinese labels

Violin students are often surprised that well-known labels can actually be selling violins which are China-made. This comes as no surprise to those who are in the violin trade, as it is a trade secret that other countries can no longer compete with China on price and value for money. This is simply because violin making is labour intensive.

According to an article at stringsmagazine.com there are well known violin labels which specify that some of their models are made in China:  Stentor Music Co. Ltd. Conservatoire; Saga Musical Instruments Cremona SV-220; Horn & Son Theo Kreutz; Angel CA01AT; Casa Del Sol (Johnson String Instruments) Albert Lee, 2000; Eastman Strings Andreas Eastman VL305ST; Potter’s Violin Caprice; Mark Edwards Violins HC602; Scott Cao Violins STV-850

Unfortunately, not all violin labels are so forthcoming regarding where the violins were made. It is a common practice to import the violins “in the white” from China (i.e. without varnish) and then apply varnish and label for sale as European etc.

Below is a very interesting excerpt from a Forum Topic called “Chinese violins with Cremona labels?” The discussion is from a well known website for violin makers and enthusiasts called http://www.maestronet.com.

(I have removed the names of those who commented on the forum, however, the full article can be found at:  http://www.maestronet.com/forum/index.php?showtopic=296851)

FORUM COMMENTS: “I spoke with a respected violin appraiser today who indicated that some “violin makers” in Cremona are importing good Chinese instruments, then putting labels indicating a Cremona origin into them. Has anyone heard of or seen examples of this practice? Makes me suspicious of some of the violins I’ve seen on the web, on EBAY auctions, and so on.”

“I have seen a few instruments labeled Cremona in which I felt the “white” work originated in China…. I have also seen the same with some instruments bearing US labels (as mentioned in the post below).”

“Not a new idea…. In the 19th and 20th centuries, some Italian makers imported ‘white’ fiddles from France and Germany which were then finished and labeled as from their hands. In many cases this was a bit ‘closer to home,’ so to speak. For example, a French maker was trained in the shop of a (famous) Italian violin making family and later produced work from his homeland for the same makers.”

“Not just cremona violin maker but elsewhere too like US for example. I strongly suspect that any dealer handling such mislabeled instruments could be successfully prosecuted under the UCC. It’s a shame. Some of the top Chinese instruments are perfectly capable of standing on their own! If only they would get pretty labels and sign their work. This leaves the question of how to validate modern production-level ‘Italian’ instruments. I suppose that the appearance is a strong clue!”

“This practice is highly common and has been going on between different countries probably for centuries now. My father while he was at violinmaking school in Mittenwald, Germany used to pack and ship white violins made by his instructor, Carl Sandner, to a now famous Italian maker, who shall remain nameless. The work by the trained eye is obviously German but to the untrained it looks like a nice Italian violin, (Too nice is the giveaway). Also the Chinese maker Sheng Xhong Xiu whom we know personally has been selling his violins in the white to the Italians for over 14 years. We just now convinced him to put his own label in his instruments and varnish them himself. He was scared of selling them under his own name for fear of stereotypes. Justifiably so. There is an excellent book by Carla Shapiro called “Violin Fraud” which chronicles hundreds of cases of this and other dishonest practices along with current laws concerning the buying and selling of instruments. A must read for any buyer for sure. News of the authenticity of the “Messiah” Strad is just about to come out which should send the violin world on it’s ear. Can’t tell you just yet though. Needless to say it’s a good day for those of you who have purchased your violin either from the maker himself or from a very reputable person. Always get as much documentation as possible. Sorry to get off the original point. Some of the easier ways of telling a Chinese violin is the use of Mongolian or Chinese wood which on the maple at least looks very different from European and much different than American maple. Mongolian maple has small black “streaks”, for lack of a better word, in the maple itself. It is usually very deeply flamed as well. This gets difficult in that most people who are getting these white violins from cheap labor are simply sending them their own wood. Workmanship and style are the main giveaways in spotting most knock-offs. The book ‘Violin Fraud’ mentions some, not all, of the people who were very well known for this type of action.”

“I’ll drop by and check out a couple of nice Chinese ones tomorrow. One of my friends has at least one high-end Chinese violin. As I recall, the maple was rather convoluted in pattern and rather pretty. A rather wide flame. I’ll look for streaks. As I recall, the workmanship is excellent. Only German and French violins for comparison at this point.”

“I live in Asia and at one time worked in a violin shop where I came in early for work one morning finding a pile of paper scraps and several ashtrays full of cigarette butts. Someone had worked late into the night transforming Chinese instruments into Italians. There was no need to change labels (which can be easily done) as there were none in the first place. Many people order these instruments and put there own commercial type of label in them. For example one could import such instruments and put in a label like: Smith violins anno 1998. I guess this is not deceiving as there is no place of origin and in many cases they are finished, varnished and set up in a second country (much like most cars today). Anyway this shop I don’t work in anymore seemed to be doing a pretty good business at this and furthermore the boss had at his disposal several highly trained makers taking trips to China to do quality control.  He also supplied the Chinese with European wood. It seems from my information that there are many violin makers in China who received their training in Italy so in some cases it is very difficult to tell the difference. They are constantly getting requests to change this and that and always improving the quality. It is quite difficult to tell just by looking at the wood as in fact most of the wood does not have black streaks in it (at least not the few hundred that have passed through my hands). One way of telling is that the maple is often highly flamed.but this is not a sure indication. Another possible way is that often the craftsmanship is meticulously perfect and consistent however the pegs fingerboard and general setup are not all that good compared with the rest of the craftsmanship. The varnish often tends to be a bland sort of orange color as well. There is nothing definite to judge by and to make it more difficult there are many factories with many different workers -possibly 5 people doing nothing but scrolls. There are many excellent makers in China and for the better student quality instruments, they are probably some of the best in the world today if sold at an honest price. One note on tone: compared with the craftsmanship again, one would expect a lot better tone than is often the case as they do tend to be a little harsh and metallic sounding (however they are quite good at an honest price). In my opinion this is due to the plates being left thick for the dealers who order them unfinished so that they can do the final graduation themselves as well as varnishing. Even a lot of the scrolls are left a bit full. Unless one has seen several hundred of these violins I think it is very difficult to know it was made in China. Your best bet is to always go to a respectable dealer who would not risk his reputation to get involved in such a business of deceiving people. Yes, this has been going on for centuries and is going on all over the world. The Chinese just make the instruments and it’s up to the buyers to decide whether they are going to put a makers name with a country that is not true, or just a commercial brand name. I guess it’s often hard to tell what one is in fact getting unless he or she goes to a reputable dealer. For example: where I live there is a certain famous maker from a certain country whose violins are much sought after. I have seen so many of his violins in so many shops and am always told that he only makes 10 or so a year! Well it seems about 30 of those 10 made each year end up here! I really doubt at his age, if he is even still making and that he could produce that many, however he does have a lot of apprentices!”

HERE ARE EXCERPTS FROM AN ARTICLE CONFIRMING THAT MANY EUROPEAN LABELLED VIOLINS ORIGINATE IN CHINA: 

(https://stringsmagazine.com/chinese-made-stringed-instruments-are-becoming-increasingly-common-in-us-shops/)

The violins, violas, cellos, and double basses can be found in shops from Berkeley, California, to Des Moines, Iowa, from New York City to Charlotte, North Carolina. They’re sold under such names as Andreas Eastman, Johannes Köhr, Andrew Schroetter, and countless others. But no matter how European-sounding their names, many of these shiny new stringed instruments on display in stores throughout the United States share a common origin: China.

What’s In a Name?

“It’s laughable how much rebranding and mismatching and criss-crossing is going on,” adds Jason Torreano, product manager for the string brand of the Music Group (formerly Boosey & Hawkes Musical Instruments), which sells its Chinese instruments under the Andrew Schroetter brand. “I wouldn’t be surprised if [a single] instrument workshop in China was producing instruments that in the U.S. are being sold under ten or 20 names.”

In fact, the import and sale of Chinese stringed instruments has become so widespread that there’s literally no way to tell all the names under which they’re being sold here. Many of the instruments come to the United States unlabeled, and wholesalers and individual shops attach labels to them that give no suggestion of their provenance. “They’ll take an Italian-sounding last name and stick a first name on it, like Medici Alfredo,” Zeller observes.

“Different shops do varying levels of additions,” Torreano elaborates. “Some will buy instruments in the white and then do varnish and setups. Others will regraduate tops, put in the bass bar. Others are buying them completely made and just putting in a label and adding strings. Once they put their own shop label on it, you won’t be able to track a lot of Chinese instruments, because at a certain point they lose their original identity.”

To complicate the question of instrument origin further, violin makers in other countries also are importing Chinese-made instrument bodies in the white and finishing them in their shops. This practice allows luthiers in Germany, for example, to claim that the instruments are German-made, since 40 percent of the work (the legal minimum) is performed there.

For consumers and dealers intent on identifying the origin of their instrument, the profusion—and confusion—of names and labels for Chinese-made instruments poses a dilemma. Fortunately, by all accounts the quality of many of these instruments is good, especially by the standards of the beginner level at which they’re having the greatest impact.

“Generally, they’re pretty good,” Zeller says of the Chinese-made stringed instruments he’s seen since the political reforms took effect. “I’ve got to say I’m impressed with the quality of the instrument you can get at a low price. 

Finely Crafted

Zeller also admires the overall workmanship of the Chinese instruments he sells, particularly the graduation on the tops and backs and the Strad-model f-hole placement. Although varnishes on instruments below the $600 range tend towards what he calls “shiny lacquer stuff,” past that point instruments typically come with a good-quality spirit varnish. And because China is home to some of the planet’s last great stands of old-growth forests, the tonewoods used in the instruments also get good reviews both for durability—Zeller admires the tight grain of the spruce tops, the flame of the maple backs, and the warp-free necks on the instruments he’s seen and for sound. 

“Tonally, the Chinese woods are usually regarded as providing a warmer, less penetrating sound,” says Joel Becktell, vice president of Eastman Strings, whose Samuel Eastman, Andreas Eastman, and Mark Moreland instrument lines all are handmade in China by expert craftsmen. “The European tonewoods have a reputation of being more brilliantly focused in their sound.”

Thanks to this improved workmanship and the availability of high-quality hardwoods, there is an abundance of excellent Chinese violins, violas, cellos, and double basses available in the United States.

Many Chinese-made student-level violins offer exceptional value at relatively inexpensive prices, which generally range from about $400 to $800 at the retail level (although they can go much higher and lower). As a result, they’ve quickly taken over a commanding share of the market for new string-music students. By some estimates, Chinese instruments now hold between 50 and 80 percent of the market for novice violinists.

China vs. Europe

That change has come largely at the expense of European violin manufacturers, whose labor costs prevent them from competing with Chinese instruments on price and whose reliance on machine manufacturing now sometimes leaves them behind in quality as well. Michael Becker, co-owner of Becker Fine Stringed Instruments in Des Moines (which sells Eastman Strings violins), recalls that for years the standby instruments for beginners came from such manufacturers as Glaesel, Knilling, and Scherl & Roth. “Those were the names that you ran into constantly for entry-level students, and I think the Chinese instruments have given those instruments competition.

For the most part, though, acceptance of Chinese-made instruments has been growing steadily, a trend that not only is affecting violin manufacturing and sales, but also is having beneficial effects on an entire generation of aspiring string musicians. There’s little doubt that over the long run the increasing accessibility and affordability of higher-quality Chinese instruments will benefit buyers and sellers alike.

“Because there are so many inexpensive instruments out there,” Jason Torreano says, “the number of kids who are starting on stringed instruments is multiplying.”

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