Avedis Zildjian Co.
Avedis Zildjian Co.
22 Longwater Drive
Norwell, Massachusetts 02061
Telephone: (781) 871-2200
Fax: (781) 871-3984
Web site: http://www.zildjian.com
Sales: $34 million (1999 est.)
NAIC: 339992 Musical Instrument Manufacturing
Avedis Zildjian Co. is the world’s leading producer of cymbals. The company traces its origin back to 1623, when a formula for making an alloy that produced superior cymbals was discovered by a forebear of the Zildjian family. The name Zildjian in fact means “cymbal maker” in Armenian. The formula for the alloy has been passed down through generations, always remaining in the hands of Zildjian family members. The company has been responsible for many of the advances in cymbal playing. It has worked closely with musicians, especially early jazz drummers, to develop new products. Cymbal types, such as the Ride, Crash, and Ping, which are used as generic designations, were actually invented and named by the Avedis Zildjian Company. The company produces cymbals in a full range of sizes and prices, from inexpensive sets for amateur musicians to the top-quality instruments used by premier symphony orchestras. Zildjian also produces cymbals specifically for marching bands and drum corps, and sells gongs and crotales. Zildjian manufactures drumsticks at a facility it owns in Alabama as well.
Avedis Zildjian Co. was officially recognized in 1988 as the U.S. firm with the longest history. The company was incorporated in Massachusetts in 1929, but it has been run by members of the Zildjian family in Turkey since 1623. In that year, an alchemist named Avedis was experimenting with metal alloys, and came up with a recipe that lent itself to cymbal manufacturing. Cymbals had been in existence since at least 1200 B.C. They are mentioned in the Old Testament and were known in ancient China. Ancient cymbals, like today’s, were made of bronze, an alloy of copper and tin. Cymbals had religious uses in various cultures, and in China and elsewhere were used in war to make a terrifying sound. Cymbals were made by skilled metal workers who could cast and beat bronze.
Avedis’s innovation was in formulating an alloy that gave a good sound but was not so brittle that the instrument would crack. His fame grew, so that his family was given the name Zildjian—“zil” is Turkish for cymbal, “ji” is maker, and “ian” is the Armenian suffix for son of. The Zildjian family guarded its secret, passing it down through succeeding generations. The cymbals the Zildjian family business manufactured were mostly sold to military bands and to churches, which used them in religious processions. Cymbals appeared sporadically in orchestral music in the late 18th century, but by the end of the 19th century, they were increasingly specified in the scores of leading composers such as Hector Berlioz and Richard Wagner.
The Zildjian company began marketing its cymbals outside of Turkey in 1851. The company at the time was led by another Avedis Zildjian, who apparently had more zest for marketing than some of his forebears. He made a trip to London and Paris in 1851 to display Zildjian’s wares, and continued to travel and advertise abroad until his death in 1865. The firm’s leadership then passed to Kerope Zildjian, and then in 1910 passed to Kerope’s nephew Aram Zildjian. Aram was temporarily in exile in Bucharest, where he set up a cymbal factory. He eventually returned to Turkey, and built up the business so that it made significant exports to the United States, a growing market.
Launch of U.S. Company During the Depression
When Aram was ready to retire, he needed to pass the family secret on to his oldest male descendant, who was his nephew, Avedis. Avedis had immigrated to the United States around 1908. He had worked in a candy factory, and then set up his own confectionary business near Boston. Armenian immigrants had a large share of the Boston confectionary market, and Avedis had married and was doing well. When his uncle contacted him around 1928, asking him to come back to Turkey and take over the family cymbal factory, Avedis was not interested. Oppression of Armenians in Turkey had led to Aram’s own, earlier flight from the country, and Avedis simply did not want to return there. Instead he convinced his uncle to bring the Zildjian company to the United States. It was the world’s leading market for musical instruments at the time, and jazz was just taking off. Musicians were experimenting with new sounds and new ways of playing. Consequently, Aram came over to Boston and supervised the building of a factory in Norfolk Downs, Massachusetts. This first factory was a small, dirt-floored garage. It was exposed to salt air and had ready access to salt water, duplicating the conditions of the Turkish factory near Istanbul. Leaving nothing to chance, the company also imported the coal for its smelting furnace from Cardiff, as the Turkish factory did. Avedis Zildjian Co. opened for business in 1929. The factory had three employees.
The year 1929 was not the greatest one during which to start a business. The stock market crash plunged the country into the worst economic depression it had ever seen, leaving many people unemployed and leisure industries such as music drastically cut back. The end of the silent picture era had also put many musicians out of work. Yet jazz was just emerging in the late 1920s, and its growth continued in the 1930s. Avedis Zildjian courted jazz musicians, traveling to jazz hotspots such as the Savoy Ballroom and Dicky Wells’ in Harlem, and the many clubs springing up in Chicago and Kansas City. Because he was manufacturing domestically and in small batches, Zildjian could respond to musicians’ needs. He made friends with many leading jazz drummers, including Gene Krupa and Dave Tough, and made new cymbals according to their specifications. One of the inventions of the jazz bands of the 1930s was the hi-hat cymbal. This was a device that held two cymbals suspended over each other horizontally. The drummer activated it with a foot pedal, causing the cymbals to clap together. Drummers in the 1920s had come up with various ways to clap their cymbals using boards and springs. Early versions were the “snow shoe,” the “low sock,” and then the “high sock.” Avedis helped perfect technology that let drummers operate the cymbals with the foot, while mounting them high enough so that the drummer could also hit them with a stick. Zildjian followed jazz trends, making hi-hats, thinner cymbals, various sizes, and generally responding to what musicians wanted as the music evolved.
By working closely with cutting-edge percussionists, the Avedis Zildjian Company was able to prosper despite the lean conditions of the Great Depression. The original factory burned down in 1939, but Zildjian replaced it with a more modern facility, forsaking the dirt floor and Cardiff coal Uncle Aram had thought essential. The company began producing cymbals for school marching bands, and Avedis Zildjian again consulted with music directors and worked with them to supply the kinds of cymbals their bands needed.
World War II and After
During World War II, copper and tin were rationed by the government, and so the amount of metal Zildjian could use was curtailed. Yet the company made cymbals for military bands, and these orders were enough to keep Zildjian’s factory going. After the war, Zildjian continued to respond to the demands of contemporary musicians. With the advent of Bebop in the 1940s, the cymbal became an even more important member of the drummer’s kit, because Bebop percussionists kept the beat on the cymbal instead of the drum. Zildjian developed larger, thicker cymbals in response to Bebop. These were known as the Bop ride and Ping ride cymbals. Through the 1950s, bass drums grew smaller and cymbals larger. Zildjian made ride cymbals in the large diameters drummers demanded, and developed smaller, lighter cymbals—the “crash” cymbal—to provide a contrasting accent sound.
The 1960s brought the Beatles. The enormous popularity of the group, and in particular Ringo Starr’s charismatic drumming, caused a surge in amateur drumming in the United States. Demand for Zildjian’s cymbals blossomed, growing fourfold in a very short amount of time. By 1968, Zildjian needed to expand its manufacturing facilities to keep up with orders. Though Aram Zildjian had brought the Zildjian family business over to the United States when Avedis Zildjian Co. was founded in 1929, Zildjian cymbals continued to be made in Turkey by a branch of the Zildjian family. Avedis Zildjian Co. had been working since the early 1950s to buy back the rights to certain cymbal lines from the Turkish company. In 1968, Avedis Zildjian Co. bought back all the remaining rights to the Zildjian cymbals made in Turkey. Then Avedis Zildjian opened a new cymbal finishing factory in New Brunswick, Canada. For a time, cymbals made in Turkey were finished in Canada. Eventually though, the Turkish factory closed, and cymbals were made from start to finish by the Canadian subsidiary, which was called Azco Ltd.
Following his father’s philosophy, Armand Zildjian and the Zildjian Sound Lab technicians maintain a close relationship with today’s leading drummers like Steve Gadd, Neil Peart, Minnie Colaiuta, Dave Weckl, Dennis Chambers, Gregg Bissonette and Lars Ulrich; leading orchestral percussionists like Frank Epstein and Anthony Cirone; major universities; and top Drum Corps like the Blue Devils, Cavaliers and the Cadets. They listen to their music and turn their ideas into sounds. It’s no wonder so many professional drummers and percussionists choose their cymbals by name —Zildjian. Because if it doesn’t say Zildjian, it’s not an authentic Zildjian Cymbal.
In 1972, the U.S. plant was upgraded significantly. The new facility in Norwell, Massachusetts, was as mechanized and technologically advanced as possible, reducing the amount of hand labor required to make the cymbals. The reject rate had always been high in the old manufacturing process. With new machinery, plant managers endeavored to make a more consistent product. Zildjian’s line continued to change to meet the needs of popular musicians. The company developed louder, brighter, or dryer sounding cymbals for rock musicians. Zildjians were the choice of many percussionists with major rock groups, including Ginger Baker of Cream, and Mitch Mitchell, Jimi Hendrix’s drummer.
Division of Company Following Avedis Zildjian’s Death in 1979
Avedis Zildjian ran the company that bore his name until his death at age 90 in 1979. He left the company to his two sons, Armand and Robert. Though the secret alloy the first Avedis had invented in 1623 probably was not much of a secret in the era of modern metallurgy, still the family business had moved through generations by transmission of this recipe to one individual. Armand and Robert Zildjian had both been involved in Avedis Zildjian Co. for years, and when the company was bequeathed to both of them, they had to take to the courts to determine how to proceed. The major problem was that they had extremely different views on how to run the company. Armand, the older brother, was in favor of modern technology and modern business management techniques. Robert apparently had more of a hands-on approach to running the business, and did not want outside consultants giving him advice. Robert also advocated making a lower-priced line of cymbals to appeal to young amateurs. Armand did not want to. Resentment between the brothers escalated to ferocious animosity. In 1981, the company split, with Robert taking the Canadian subsidiary. He renamed it Sabian.
Sabian continued to make cymbals in an old-fashioned process, with a large amount of skilled hand work. Zildjian moved in the opposite direction, filling its factory with computerized controls so that hand-work was at a minimum. Sabian agreed not to compete with Zildjian in the U.S. market until 1983. It entered the market in a fiercely antagonistic mode, claiming that Sabian cymbals were the true Zildjians, made by the ancient recipe. Both companies innovated, following the ideas of professional drummers and using well-known musicians to endorse their products. By the mid-1980s, Zildjian was still the leading cymbal manufacturer in the world, with a market share of about 40 percent worldwide. Sabian was in second place or close to second place, sharing the spot with a Swiss company, Paiste A.G.
1990s and Beyond
In the following decade, Zildjian continued to lead the world cymbal market, despite competition from Sabian. Sales stood at around $34 million by the late 1990s, with the total worldwide market for cymbals valued at only about $50 million. The company entered a new line of business beginning in 1989, when it purchased a drumstick manufacturing plant in Alabama. In the 1990s Zildjian grew to become one of the world’s leading drumstick manufacturers. When Zildjian celebrated its 375th anniversary in 1998, it was endorsed by many of the leading jazz drummers in the United States. Zildjian also courted symphonic talent, working with a percussionist from the Boston Symphony to come up with a new line of cymbals for orchestral use. In the late 1990s, Zildjian’s product line ran from tiny finger cymbals and low-priced cymbals for beginners to handcrafted Ride cymbals retailing for over $600. In 1999, Armand Zildjian named his daughter Craigie as vice-president and CEO. He remained president and chairman, but it seemed clear that she would be his successor, the first woman in such a position in the firm’s history.
Sabian Ltd.; Paiste A.G.
- Secret formula for cymbal alloy is discovered by a Turkish alchemist named Avedis.
- Zildjian cymbals are marketed at trade fairs in London and Paris.
- Aram Zildjian is in charge of family business.
- Aram passes Zildjian legacy on to his nephew Avedis in the United States.
- Company splits; Robert Zildjian founds Canadian company Sabian Ltd.
- Craigie Zildjian is appointed first female CEO in company’s history.
Blades, James, Percussion Instruments and Their History, New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1970.
Brewer, Margot, “Status Cymbals,” Canadian Business, September
1985, p. 67.
Pinksterboer, Hugo, The Cymbal Book, Milwaukee, Wis.: Hal Leonard Publishing Corp., 1992.
Plazonja, Jonathan, “Avedis Zildjian, the Father of Cymbals,” Modern Drummer, November 1995.
Stiff, David, “Cymbaling Rivalry: Two Brothers Clash in the Music Business,” Wall Street Journal, April 21, 1995, pp. A1, A12.