Violin makers, or luthiers, are the people who manufacture violins and other instruments from the violin family, and have been doing so for nearly 500 years! Dating back to 1565, Cremona violin maker Andrea Amati created the world’s first (recorded) four-string violin named the Charles IX violin after the French king for whom he created the violin.
To be an acclaimed violin maker means perhaps, that a person is one of the few masters in existence with such great craftsmanship that the instrument is both aesthetically appealing and superior in sound quality when compared with other violins.
Let’s dive together into historical facts about the most famous violin makers in history followed by a shortlist of modern luthiers that are being widely recognized.
Who is a Luthier?
Luthier is the official title of a violin maker. The word luthier was originally used to refer to someone who made lutes, a plucked, stringed instrument from the Renaissance Era. The violin maker eventually became referred to as the luthier in France as the violin became more common.
In French, the word is pronounced as [loo-ti-ay], and in English-speaking countries, the word is pronounced [loo-the-er].
Historically, luthiers’ work in crafting stringed instruments was not specifically designated to the violin, but rather any and all instruments that are plucked or bowed, with the exception of the piano and harp. In fact, to be a luthier is to be versatile in craftsmanship as they have to work on violins, violas, cellos, double basses, and for some specialists, even historical instruments such as the viola da gamba (it’s similar to the modern cello, except it has seven strings and frets).
The luthier not only works to create instruments but is also a professional and specialist when it comes to repairing and restoring violins as we so often need in our modern times as did other instrumentalists back then. A luthier can solve almost any issues you may have with your instrument, whether it be a broken piece, a need for re-varnishing, or a rehair for your bow.
A Brief History: the Italian City of Cremona
The job of a luthier first came into existence with Cremonese violin maker Andrea Amati in the 16th century who established the so-called violin family. Of course, he was not the only luthier at the time. There were many other families and independent makers from Italy who also made instruments.
Andrea Amati (1505-1577)
Andrea Amati of Cremona, Italy, was the first recorded luthier to craft a four-string violin. Although we typically see violins with four strings, this was not always the case, and Amati can be credited with being one of the first violin makers to really standardize the four-string violin which we still use today.
Though the modern instruments are slightly different from the original violins of the 16th century, they are still the same instrument. One of the differences is that it was common for violin makers back then to include their own personal touch to the instrument, like a small design on the violin’s body, for example. The first instrument of Amati has inscribed on its ribs (the side of the violin) “Pietate et Justitia” the motto of French King Charles IX for whom he created the violin.
Andrea Amati was well-praised for his violin making and soon established a school of violin makers. His school of violin making focused primarily on the technique of building violins. The method of creation, the different shapes and sizes of the instruments, the types of materials needed, and the basic format for instruments in the violin family. His standardization of the violin family first started within his Italian family, teaching his sons Antonio and Girolamo who would eventually pass the tradition onto Nicolò Amati, the grandson and most famous of the Amati family.
Nicolò Amati (1596-1684)
Nicolò Amati, also born in Cremona, Italy, was as rebellious as all young violin makers are! Violin making ran through his veins, so we can only imagine the reaction of his family when he began to develop based on their traditional model. The Cremonese luthier made violins that were much smaller than what his family had made in the past, yet they were much more full in tone and produced a large, robust sound. The young violin maker’s instruments surpassed those of his family and still, today, are some of the most sought-after violins in the world.
However rebellious Nicolò might have been, he continued his family legacy by teaching other protégés how to create violins with the same tradition of the finest craftsmanship. Two of his most well-known pupils also surpassed him in notoriety, Antonio Stradivari, and Andrea Guarneri.
Andrea Guarneri (1626-1698)
Founder of Casa Guarneri, Andrea Guarneri studied with Nicolò Amati in the town of Cremona before eventually opening his own shop. Of all the Cremonese violin makers on this list, Andrea’s violins were the least successful and least innovative of them all. His contributions to the violin-making world can greatly be attributed to teaching his son how to make violins, a tradition he learned from the Amati family.
Giuseppe del Gesù Guarneri (1698-1744)
As we have come to learn, the city of Cremona, Italy is the birthplace of many of the world’s most famous luthiers, including the son of Andrea Guarneri, Giuseppe del Gesù. Although we now recognize Giuseppe as one of the top three violin makers of all time, the older Italian’s career was short-lived as he was in a constant rivalry with the ever-popular Antonio Stradivari.
The town of Cremona and the demand for fine violins was dominated by the young Antonio Stradivari who essentially had a monopoly over the city. Among Giuseppe’s greatest downfalls was his constant need to experiment with the models of his violins, leading to an inconsistent and worse-in-sound violin. Perhaps he was just trying to keep up with his much younger rival, and his instruments are no doubt some of the best from this century, but his life would be in great juxtaposition to Antonio Stradivari. I think he would be happy to know now that his most famous violin, The Vieuxtemps Guarneri del Gesù is worth an estimated $16 million USD.
Antonio Stradivari (1644-1737)
Antonio Stradivari from Cremona, Italy is the most famous and most recognized name in the history of violin luthiers and violin making in general. His instruments are considered to be the finest among all violins in the world. They have a remarkably unique tone and quality and have caught the attention of modern scientists for the past few decades.
We now know that Stradivari’s craft with regard to violins included the use of longer violins (something he would eventually abandon) as well as a darker, more rich varnish than those found in his predecessors’ violins (this he would continue until his death). Scientists have speculated on what to attribute his unique sounding violins but have yet to come to any certain conclusions.
Few people in the world have actually played such a fine instrument as a Stradivarius, but many of the world’s most famous violinists frequently perform using instruments of Antonio Stradivari. It is a true testament to the craft and literal art found in his violins.
The Most Famous Violin Makers
The most famous violin makers all come from a town in Cremona, Italy. In order of notoriety they are:
- Antonio Stradivari
- Giuseppe del Gesù Guarneri
- Nicolò Amati
Why Are Stradivarius’ the Best?
The violins of Antonio Stradivari are considered to be the world’s best violins because of the tone which they are capable of producing. Even in a large concert hall with an audience of thousands of players, musicians playing on Stradivarius violins can be heard from even the furthest seats in the venue.
Watch the video below to hear a comparison of 7 violins built by Stradivari. Do you hear the difference between these instruments?
Contemporary Notable Luthiers
Now, let’s have a look at the most recognized violin makers of our time.
Daniele Tonarelli, born in Cremona, Italy is one of the worlds leading contemporary violin makers and definitely most in demand! Master Tonarelli is from the “worlds-center of violin making” and his violins are of the highest quality one can expect. He also makes violas and cellos and has them listed for sale on his website.
Another Cremonese luthier is Benedicte Friedmann whose instruments are among the best of the world’s contemporary instruments. Her sense of craft takes shape in the form of Guadagnini models, who was another famous Cremonese violin maker of the 16th century. As one of the world’s most sought-after violin makers in the 21st century, Friedmann is someone you should keep an eye on if you are interested in violin making.
W.E. Hill & Sons
The W.E. Hill & Sons company is not only on top of the world violin-and-bow making as contemporary luthiers, but they have also been around for over one century and produce amazing bows, violins, violas, and products for violin maintenance like cleaning products or peg paste.
Australian Violinist and Luthier Olaf Grawert is a professional luthier and restorer who frequently posts videos on Youtube for educational and entertainment purposes. If you want to learn more about what exactly it takes to create a violin, or if you want to look into the world of violin making from the perspective of a professional violin maker you should definitely check out his Youtube channel!
As string players and as musicians in general, our instruments are quite important and can have an impact on the music we play. If your violin is too uncomfortable in some ways (for example, the strings are too high above the fingerboard) then you should visit your local luthier as soon as possible!Musicians often tend to ignore such problems but are surprised at how easily their playing can improve after a visit to their luthier.
Because this job is quite specialized and because there are so few schools around the world for violin making, your local luthier might have studied alongside some other famous luthiers. Whatever service you may need, your luthier is your friend! They are knowledgeable experts and are specialists within the music community.
After exploring the history and lineage of famous violin makers, I hope you find yourself more curious and more excited about the instrument you play on! No matter where you bought your instrument, it was crafted by the hands of someone you haven’t met. Maybe you’d like to learn more about that maker?