In 2003 a violin built by Samuel Zygmuntowicz for Isaac Stern sold for $130,000 at auction, the highest price for one by a living luthier. Last year Yo-Yo Ma played a Zygmuntowicz cello worth an estimated $80,000 while on a two-month tour. When it went back to the shop for a tune-up, Ma went back to his mainstay, a 1733 Domenico Montagnana (1686--1750) worth $2.5 million. "I want to give (Ma) a reason to leave his Montagnana at home," says Zygmuntowicz, 52. "I keep thinking, what could be better."
Zygmuntowicz is an artist's artist. With intense dark eyes and large hands bearing the scars of his craft, he hews exquisite string instruments out of spruce, ebony and maple. "There are no more than six people who are at his level," says Tim J. Ingles, director of musical instruments for Sotheby's.
His obsession with instruments kicked in at age 13 in his parents' Philadelphia garage, where he used a Swiss army knife and a round file to turn a discarded reed into a flute. By age 16 he started restoring violins at a workshop in town; at 19 he entered the Violin Making School of America, the first trade school of its kind, in Salt Lake City. Between semesters he served an internship under Carl Becker, an instrument maker who lodged the apprentice in a cabin without running water next to his summer workshop in Wisconsin.
After graduation in 1980 Zygmuntowicz landed a job with Jacques Francais and Rene Morel, two dealer-restorers in New York City. The gig paid a paltry $180 a week, but he worked on instruments made by masters like Antonio Stradivari (1644-1737) and Giuseppe Guarneri (1698-1744). In the evenings he refurbished violins at home to make ends meet. The toil paid off in 1984, when he sold a homemade violin for $6,500 to one of Francais' former customers. Soon he was attracting accomplished fiddlers.
Eugene Drucker, a violinist and founding member of the Emerson String Quartet, is a fan. Drucker owns a 1686 Stradivari violin and a 2002 Zygmuntowicz, moving between the two, depending on the material, the performance venue and his mood. "In a large space like Carnegie Hall, the Zygmuntowicz is superior to my Strad," he says. "It has more power and punch."
Zygmuntowicz works on two floors of his five-story brownstone in Park Slope, Brooklyn, which he shares with his wife, Liza Bruna, and two young sons. His apprentice, 25-year-old Collin Gallahue, lives in the attic. Zygmuntowicz meets clients in the "salon," a wide-windowed room with mismatched antique chairs, a grand piano and cabinets housing diagrams of nearly every instrument he ever touched. One large pencil sketch of a cello -- Yo-Yo Ma's -- hangs on the wall.
While routinely putting in 15-hour days, Zygmuntowicz makes only half a dozen instruments a year. His waiting list stands at 30, a comforting five-year backlog. He charges roughly $53,000 for a new violin and $90,000 for a cello -- low enough to keep the order book filled with musicians (as opposed to collectors) but rich enough to let him spend a lot of time on a single job.
He takes a 20% down payment and signs a contract containing what he calls a Tahiti clause: "I hope to be able to complete your order in four years." If clients lose patience along the way, they can have their money back. "I started to realize I was booked so far in advance, what if I needed a break?" he says.
Zygmuntowicz compares making violins to playing chess: "You need to understand how the moves you make now will behave further down the line."
First step is selecting the wood. He typically uses spruce from the Dolomite region of Italy for the front; curly or flamed maple from the Balkans for the back, neck and sides; willow for the interior blocks and lining; dyed pear and poplar from Italy for the inlay; and Sri Lankan ebony for the fingerboard. Pegs and tailpieces come from a supplier of mountain mahogany in Oregon.
He then roughs out the parts with a 6-foot-high Rockwell band saw and an Inca jointer/planer. The finer work calls for tools handmade for the job. His knives, sharpened every hour as he works, barely poke through their wooden handles, allowing him to get close to the wood. As the instrument's back and front thin down, he switches to a steel scraper, shaving only at night under a single draftsman's lamp to pick up shadows and contours. He heats the maple with a bending iron to form the sides (or ribs).
Once pieced together, the violins sit under the sun or an ultraviolet lamp to settle before varnishing. Zygmuntowicz uses a 16th-century recipe, mixing a proprietary resin with linseed oil and heating the goop for several days. Slathering it on is a big moment: "That's when it crosses the border from a dead to a living thing," he says. Finally, he adds the strings and bridges, followed by weeks of testing with numerous musicians. E presto.