When it was time for Aram Zildjian to pass on his family’s 300-year-old secret for making superior cymbals, he looked to Massachusetts’ Armenian community.
Aram was in Bucharest, a refugee from the Armenian uprising against the Sultan. He had tried and failed to blow him up in Constantinople. After fleeing the city, he set up a factory to continue the family business in Romania.
Since the Zildjians started their business in 1623, family tradition required Aram to tell his oldest male heir just how to make the cymbals with the unique purity of tone. That relative, Avedis Zildjian, had immigrated to Greater Boston, a haven for Armenians who had been persecuted by the Ottoman Empire.
Cymbals were long used in Greek and Armenian religious ceremonies and by Ottoman military bands. On March 23, 1618, Sultan Mustafa I authorized an immigrant named Avedis to make cymbals. The sultan gave him 80 gold pieces and a name: Zildjian, meaning ‘son of cymbal maker.’
Avedis was an alchemist who had fled the wars in Eastern Anatolia for the Ottoman Empire, where Armenians were tolerated.
Avedis Zildjian left the sultan’s palace in 1623 to set up a cymbal factory in Constantinople. The formula for making the cymbals was kept a family secret for generations.
Starting in the late 17th century when European composers began using cymbals in opera. They were inspired by the sound of the Ottoman martial bands. Composer Richard Wagner once said, “That is the real music.”
Avedis Zildjian’s descendant, also Avedis Zildjian, realized the potential for his company and brought his cymbals to European trade shows. European composers were said to specify that only Zildjian cymbals were to be used in opera production.
By the late 19th century, the Ottomans were growing less tolerant of the Armenians in their midst. They began to flee and to revolt. In 1880, the first Armenians came to Massachusetts.
Ottoman persecution culminated in the Armenian massacre of 1915, commemorated to this day in Massachusetts on April 24. Survivors of Ottoman oppression landed in Boston and Watertown, Mass. Today the commonwealth is home to as many as 70,000 people who claim Armenian descent. Only California claims more Armenians (which include the Kardashians).
One Armenian immigrant, Stephen Mugar, started Star Market. Around 1928, Aram Zildjian and his nephews Avedis and Puzant opened a cymbal factory in Quincy.
“Cymbals satisfying symphonic and operatic requirements are difficult to find,” Life Magazine in 1944 reported. “Nobody today manufactures the cymbals but a single family of Armenians whose purity of tone is unlike any cymbal ever made.”
Life also reported the New York Philharmonic had to hire a new cymbal player because he owned cymbals and the orchestra’s had gone missing.
Avedis passed the company on to his eldest son Armand and together they worked with drummers like Chick Webb and Gene Krupa to adapt cymbals for drum sets by making them thinner. Armand’s younger brother Robert decided to move to Canada and start his own cymbal company, which he called Sabian after his children Sally (Sa), Billy (bi) and Andy (an).
More recently the company collaborated with Frank Epstein of the Boston Symphony Orchestra to design orchestral cymbals, which are lighter and thinner than those used by rock and roll bands.
To see a demonstration of Zildjian orchestral cymbals, click here.
In 2010, Avedis Zildjian Company merged with Vic Firth, Inc., a company founded by a BSO percussionist who started making his own drumsticks.
Image: Avedis Zildjian in Quincy, By Avedis Zildjian Company http://www.zildjian.com, PD-US, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16960807