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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Vis­it an Online Col­lec­tion of 61,761 Musi­cal Instru­ments from Across the World

Watch a Musi­cian Impro­vise on a 500-Year-Old Music Instru­ment, The Car­il­lon

What Makes the Stradi­var­ius Spe­cial? It Was Designed to Sound Like a Female Sopra­no Voice, With Notes Sound­ing Like Vow­els, Says Researcher

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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