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newsdays: Cymbal Company Celebrates 380th Birthday


AP Business Writer

May 11, 2003, 2:47 PM EDT

NORWELL, Mass. — When you’ve been making cymbals for drummers for 380 years, there’s only one way to celebrate a birthday.

With a bang.

Dozens of percussionists — classical, jazz and rock, shaggy-haired and clean-cut, famous and obscure — gathered Friday to celebrate the birthday of Zildjian, the world’s best-known maker of cymbals and a company whose roots in 1623 Constantinople give it a claim to be the world’s longest-running family owned business.

“Every classical musician I know, (every) percussionist, their ambition is to come to Norwell to the Zildjian factory and find the cymbals they will use in their philharmonic or orchestra,” said former John Coltrane drummer Elvin Jones, a guest at the ceremony.

There were speeches from politicians and from the latest generation of Zildjians to lead the company, chief executive Craigie and her sister Debbie, the vice president of human resources.

And as is wont to happen when drummers gather, there was plenty of noise.

Much of Zildjian’s history is fuzzy, and the company isn’t even exactly sure how many generations of Zildjians have held in their hands the top-secret family formula for treating alloys to make them emit a special ring.

The company line is that it all began with their ancestor Avendis I, an alchemist in Constantinople,(now Istanbul, Turkey) whose cymbal-making expertise caused the sultan to bestow on him the name “Zildjian,” which means “cymbal maker.”

Zildjian’s reputation spread, and some European classical composers insisted their pieces be performed on Zildjian instruments. But it was essentially part-time work, and the tradition almost died out when the Armenian family moved to the United States in the early 20th century.

“It was my grandmother who spoke to my grandfather and said, this is too romantic a story, this is like a dynasty,” Craigie Zildjian said in an interview Friday. “She said you can’t break the record here, it’s been going on too long.”

So, in 1929, Avendis Zildjian III opened the first U.S. factory in Quincy, Mass. He and his son also built a real business, working with music legends like Gene Krupa and Papa Jo Jones to develop new products like the “Paper Thin Crash” and “HiHat” cymbals.

“My father was the musical one,” Debbie Zildjian said. “He instantly related to all these artists and began experimenting with different shapes, different weights, different sizes.”

After another boost during the Beatles craze, Zildjian now sells more than 500,000 cymbals a year and claims a 65-percent market share. The cymbals retail for anywhere from $100 to up to $750 for a custom 22-inch ride.

For drummers, cymbals may be the most important part of a drum kit.

“I can play any drum set, but I can’t play any cymbals,” said Terry-Lynne Carrington, who has played with Herbie Hancock and travels with the Zildjian cymbals she has endorsed since she was 11. “Cymbals define your sound.”

The secret formula, meanwhile, is kept close to the chest. Only four people know it — even the plant manager and vice president of manufacturing are in the dark.

Keeping a family business going from generation to generation is no easy feat. Fewer than one in 10 survive to a fourth generation, said Paul Karofsky, the executive director of Northeastern University’s Center for Family Business, who has consulted for the family.

The problem is usually a failure to communicate, manage effectively and resolve conflicts between the inherently different value systems of families and businesses, he said.

There have been challenges. A dispute after Craigie’s grandfather died in 1979 was resolved only after her father, Armand, who died last year, bought out his brother’s shares.

Any young Zildjians who want to enter the business must work elsewhere first to gain experience. Nobody is guaranteed a job.

“They recognize how hard it is for family business to survive, they recognize the complexity, and they want to make sure they beat all the odds, and they do it beautifully,” Karofsky said.

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