How Zildjian Cymbals Were Created by an Alchemist in the Ottoman Empire, Circa 1618

When it comes to musical instruments, there are brands and then there are legacies—names so unquestionably indicative of quality and craftsmanship that players swear by them for life. Martin Guitars, for example, have inspired this kind of loyalty among musicians like Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash. Martin’s story—dating back to 1833—inspires book-length histories and documentaries. In the drum world, the longest-lived and most-storied brand would have to be Zildjian, the famed cymbal maker known the world over, beloved by the best drummers in the business.

But Zildjian is far older than Martin Guitars, or any other contemporary instrument manufacturer. Indeed, the company may be the world’s oldest existing manufacturer of almost any product. Though incorporated in the U.S. in 1929, Zildjian was actually founded 400 years ago in Constantinople by Armenian metalworker Avedis, who in 1622 “melted a top-secret combination of metals,” writes Smithsonian, “to create the perfect cymbal.” The short film above recreates in dramatic fashion the alchemy of Avedis’ discovery and the global history of Zildjian.

The brief Smithsonian history can seem a little sensational and may not be entirely accurate at points. Lara Pellegrinelli, writing at The New York Times, dates Avedis’ “secret casting process” to four years earlier, 1618. (The company itself dates its founding to 1623.) Pellegrinelli notes that Avedis’ “new bronze alloy” pleased the Sultan, Osman II, who “granted the young artisan permission to make instruments for the court and gave him the Armenian surname Zildjian (meaning ‘son of cymbal maker’). The family set up shop in the seaside neighborhood of Samatya in Constantinople, where metal arrived on camel caravans and donkeys powered primitive machines.”

Zildjian cymbals were admired by Mozart and his contemporaries, and “what came to be known simply as ‘Turkish cymbals’ were assimilated by European orchestras and, in the first half of the 19th century, into new military and wind band styles” of the East and West. In 1851, Zildjian cymbals set sail on a 25-foot schooner bearing the family name, bound for London’s Great Exhibition. Kerope Zildjian introduced the K Zildjian line of cymbals in 1865, still in production and widely in use today. (The old K’s can still be heard in several major symphony orchestras.)

As the jazz scene took off in the 1920’s, many music shops exclusively carried Zildjians, and drummers like Gene Krupa helped refine and develop the famous instruments even further, making them thinner, more responsive, and able to cut through the big band sound. The story of Zildjian is the story of Western music and its unmistakable Eastern influence, an incredible history four centuries in the making, full of intrigue and brilliant innovation, and containing at its heart an alchemical mystery, a secret recipe still closely guarded by the Zildjian family.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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Comments (6)
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  • Peterk says:

    you failed to mention that the reason why the Zildjians moved to the US was do to Turkish persecution of Armenians

  • Greg says:

    Sabian is the real deal – started by Bob Zildjan in New Brunswick.

  • beowulf888 (@beowulf888) says:

    “Indeed, the company may be the world’s oldest existing manufacturer of almost any product.”

    Sorry to rain on your parade, but a simple check of Wikipedia comes up with many many companies older than Zildjian. The oldest company that manufactures a product is Genda Shigyō of Japan. It manufactures ceremonial paper goods, and it dates back to 771 CE. But it is only the fifth oldest company in the world. In the European sphere, the Monnaie de Paris, a mint, has been in operation since 864 CE. Zildjian is probably the oldest manufacturer of musical instruments, but there are several dozen companies that make things that have been around much longer than Zildjian.

  • K. Zildjian says:

    Thanks for your comment. Zildjian is the oldest “family owned” company.

  • K. Zildjian says:

    NOT true. The story of how we came to America is long and complicated and nothing to do with the Armenian Genocide.

  • K. Aram Zildjian says:

    NOT true. The story of how we came to America is long and complicated.

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