Romanian String Section

  • Vasile Gliga is lost in concentration as he examines a beautifully made copy of a 1715 Stradivarius. Then his cell phone rings, spoiling the moment. That's the problem with running a business. Gliga has little time for what he loves best: the centuries-old craft of violin making. His 10-year-old violin-making company, known simply as the Gliga Group, is one of Romania's most successful family-owned concerns, employing some 1,200 people. "I started with two people making two violins a year. Now I have 500 making 3,000 a month," he says. "I didn't expect it would grow to this." It is a success story that is partly rooted in communism, partly in geography and largely in Gliga's innate skills as an entrepreneur. Violins in his top-of-the-line maestro series change hands for as much as $5,000. The company's sales reached $5 million last year, no small achievement in a limited, saturated market and within a national economy still struggling in the aftermath of 40 years of communism.

    It's a difficult market to conquer. There is more mystique surrounding violins than any other musical instrument, and customers want an item of beauty as well as excellent tonal quality. "No two violins sound the same," says Gliga general manager Sandu Stroe. "Like people, each one is unique." Instruments made in Italy in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries by the legendary Amati, Guarneri and Stradivari families sell for millions, even as musicians and dealers argue passionately about the superiority of originals over modern copies.

    The link between past and present is the special spruce and maple wood of the Transylvanian forests near the Gliga factory in Reghin. It is a resource so prized by violin makers that the nearby Gurghiului Valley is commonly known as Italian valley, after the luthiers who are said to have journeyed there from Cremona, Italy, the home of the masters, in search of perfect wood. According to Gliga, who grew up in the valley, the critical ingredient is the abundance of flamed maple (also called curly sycamore), the strikingly grained wood of choice for the back of violins. More specifically, it's an aberration normally found in only one in a thousand sycamores, whose wavy fibers produce exceptional resonance. The Gliga factory has immediate access to this vital resource and in Vasile Gliga a keen and experienced eye. "When I see a log, I automatically know how many violins I can get out of it," he says. Each stack of spruce or maple is tagged with details of the year it was cut and the specific part of the instrument in which it will be used. Wood is aged up to six years. As with fine wines, the final product achieves depth and flavor with maturity.

    Communism's contribution to Gliga's success was the party's inability to set up a violin factory in Bucharest. The capital's facility was closed, and Reghin became the only town in the country where violins were made. As a result, the experts are all still there. "Skilled workmanship imbues a violin with special characteristics," says Gliga. He believes the unique qualities of the local wood coupled with the skill of his work force mean Gliga instruments can successfully compete with those being made by long-established European companies.

    There are, Gliga says, 200 steps involved in producing high-quality violins. Apart from the initial millwork, Gliga violins are handmade with tools often fashioned by the artisans themselves for the delicate shaping and carving of the instrument. Using teams of three or four people, each specialized in one step of the process, the Gliga factory can maximize its output while maintaining high quality. That teamwork is a variation on the accepted manufacturing theme: purists argue that the finest instruments are those made entirely by one master. Gliga says several people working together actually add to a violin's character: "The workers here are like one big family, so many souls working and feeling the wood — processing, carving, polishing, varnishing. I feel like a father to them, and the violin is our newborn baby. Then, in the hands of a musician, it grows up."

    Another reason for Gliga's success is more prosaic — the price. The four grades of handcrafted violins (school, student, professional and maestro, ranging from $50 to $1,500 wholesale) are extremely competitive compared with the cheap but poorer quality Chinese-made fiddles currently bagging some 65% of the market or with the sports car — like prices of German and Italian models. Low production costs in Romania give Gliga a competitive edge even though its employees — considered an elite work force — earn twice the national average of $100 a month.

    Vasile Gliga has come a long way since his first, illicit foray into business. While employed by Reghin's state-owned violin factory in the 1980s, he secretly made an instrument for himself at home. In 1990, following the Romanian revolution, he sold it to a dealer in the West. The $2,000 price, an undreamed-of fortune, not only bought him a secondhand auto, it also prompted a decision. Frustrated by what he calls the "old-style communist-worker mentality" ingrained in his factory colleagues, he quit his job, calculating that he and his wife, working from home, could build two Strad-style violins a month and support their family. A year later he began setting up his own factory.

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