Violin Information

German Factory Fiddles and their History

 

German violin makers have been making stringed instruments for almost 500 years, but in the last 150 years they have supplied the world and especially the US with a huge number of affordable student instruments.

Almost every day during my 35 years in the retail violin business and numerous times a week through the internet, I was asked to look at a violin for identification or value reasons.  In most cases I know what I will see as I have seen many thousands of  these old German (also French and Czech) violins that have typically been sitting in a closet or attic for several generations. Many of these instruments have what we call a facsimile (copy) label stating that it is was made by one of the great Italian masters such as Stradivari, Guarneri, Amati or one of many famous German or French makers.  Most of these instruments were made for export to the American market between 1870 and 1930.  More recently Chinese imports have taken over much of this need. 

These German "factory" instruments were available in many different qualities and could even be purchased from catalogs like Wards or Sears and could be purchased for under $2 to close to $100. So even the farmer in the heartlands of the US could get a violin.  I say factory violins, but at that time factory still meant something different than what we think of today. These instruments were for the most part handmade, they were just handmade in an assembly line format, some operations were larger than others, some only had a few makers and others had many hundreds, packed in workshops like the cords of wood they stockpiled. Since the US hadn't yet developed any real commercial violin making industry for student instruments, the US violin shops and the American public were dependent on these imports to supply the increasing demand.

Many people needed violins, from dance fiddlers to farmers, as there was not a lot of alternative entertainment choices.  So a large violin making industry took place in the regions that were known as Bohemia and Saxony Germany.  The German region was already a center of violin making since the early 1600's, and it was not difficult for this larger need for instruments to take place. The town of Markneukirchen in Saxony was one such hub, especially during the last few decades of the 1800's and the early 1900's.  This same area, as it turned out, was a great source of the raw materials for violin making.

Other areas of violin making existed in Germany and Czechoslovakia. I use the word Czechoslovakia for reference even though it didn't become that until 1918. The makers in this region learned to turn out inexpensive instruments for the growing market, while the best trained makers worked in some of the larger cities like Prague, Berlin and Dresden and produced finer quality instruments that were often sold to more wealthy buyers.  Many well known firms came from this region as can be seen on the Trade Instruments page.

Unlike some of the massive violin factories in France, like the Laberte or Jerome Thibouville Lamy firm (JTL for short), many of the Bohemian makers worked on their own or in small groups and then took their instruments on the road to sell over the border in Germany. This became a trade route and since the cost of living there was lower than in Germany some of the violins produced there were extremely inexpensive. So that $2 violin in the Sears catalog had to have an original price from the actual maker of just a fraction of that amount. This was also the case for many makers within Germany and for the most part, the vast majority of the German exports were made in small shops (cottages) and then sold to the large firms - hence the term "cottage industry".  Even today this type of industry exists.  After WWII much of the violin making moved to the region of Bubenrueth in Bavaria, about 2 hours south of Markneukirchen.

An instrument labeled "Made in Germany" or Czechoslovakia, may be the reverse as it could have been walked across the border to be then exported to the US. After 1891 some version of the country of origin needed to be stated on the label if it was to be exported to the US, but that origin could say where it was exported from and not actually where it was made.

After World War I, it was easier for Americans to get their entertainment from other sources and the huge demand for violins subsided.  As wealth increased in the US, it created a need for higher grade violins. In  the 1920's, firms in Markneukirchen like those of Ernst Heinrich Roth, E. Reinhold Schmidt, and Heinrich Heberlein produced some beautiful and much higher quality instruments that today are very much in demand.  Some of these instruments were also made in Czechoslovakia and sold to the bigger firms unvarnished.  The best workers at varnishing were often employed in house at these big firms which accounts for the uniformity in varnish quality in a specific model instrument.  These higher quality instrument were less assembly line construction and more master-made instruments and were among the best to come out of the area. This was also the time that the French workshops in Mirecourt were at their peak.  By the early 1940's the Markneukirchen region was failing financially and for the most part violin making stopped.

After 1930, with the rise of the Nazi's, many firms took their German made instruments to Schönbach Czechoslovakia, they were labeled as being made there, and then shipped them to America. Schonbach (in 1966 renamed Luby) is still a violin making town.  So you could have a German made instrument that was actually labeled as having been made in Czechoslovakia. For the most part it doesn't matter, however in general, German instruments bring a higher price than Czech ones - but the quality of the instrument really sets the value.

Around 1945,  many makers fled the Czech region and settled in Bubenreuth, Bavaria.  Even today, makers remain there, most are individual makers, not large factory settings.  As in the past, the making of student quality instruments depends on low cost and although some of today's student instruments are made in Germany and others in the region of Luby Czechoslovakia, the vast majority of the new factory instruments are made in Romania and China.

The German, Czech and French instruments from the late 19th and early 20th centuries were so plentiful, that they are still readily available. Although many of these are almost worthless, many others can be very nice, even ones that are simply labeled as Strad's, Amati's and Guarneri's can be a fine instrument for an advancing student.  Often these need some work to bring them back to their best, but they have now had a hundred years for the wood to have aged.