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Vintage View - Zildjian Cymbals

Janissary Band of the Sultan using cymbals

The Zildjian Company is not only the world''s largest cymbal- and drumstick- maker, it’s also one of the oldest businesses in the world, and the oldest recognised business in America.

It all began in 1618 in what was then known as Constantinople, when an Armenian named Avedis accidentally made the perfect alloy for cymbals. Rumour has it that this breakthrough occurred while he was practicing alchemy – trying to turn base metals into gold. Instead, he created an alloy of tin, copper, and silver which produced wonderful sounds when struck, and more importantly,  without breaking into little pieces. 

There are two stories of how Avedis acquired the surname of Zildjian. The first is that he made it up himself, and the second is that he was given it along with 80 gold pieces in 1622 by Sultan Osman II in recognition for the quality of the cymbals he was producing. However it happened, the surname is formed from two Turkish words "zil” and “dj" (cymbal-maker/seller in Turkish) with the Armenian word "ian" (for son of) at the end. These days the name is generally accepted to mean ‘cymbal smith’. 

So the very first Avedis Zildjian really set the ball rolling in 1623 with a product he put together with a highly-secret process which, as time went by, was to be revealed only to the oldest son in the family. 

In general, every interested party these days knows the constituents of a cast Zildjian cymbal: 80% copper, 20% tin (with trace elements of silver in it) which makes a substance called B20 – better known as cymbal bronze. 

You might call the actual formula an ‘open secret’ since its how these metals are combined which is the big secret - and it’s that which makes the difference. I know that for myself - even after having been an endorser for eight years by the time I visited their old Quincy factory in 1970, I still looked with awe at the innocuous metal shutters behind which I knew all that top-secret work went on. I was able to see the results of the process which were lying all over the floor in front of the shutters and looking (sorry Zildjian) very like cow pats, but obviously I wasn’t going to be allowed to catch sight of the smelting method itself. The resulting bronze ‘cakes’ were cooling on the concrete floor awaiting their next process when they’d be heated and rolled in every direction to make them flat, strong, and ready to be shaped and machined. 

The 2nd Avedis Zildjian

So, there are no prizes for realising the secret isn’t in the formula at all - but rather in the procedure which amalgamates the constituents. Bronze is notoriously very brittle because of the tin content - if you simply put together a B20 alloy and then heated and rolled the resulting metal, unless you were extraordinarily fortunate, it would simply shatter when struck. 

What the very first Avedis discovered during his quest for transmutation was not gold, but a process for treating the copper/tin alloy so it could be heated and rolled without breaking. This was because the molecular structure of his resulting alloy turned out to be malleable and ductile – perfect for an instrument designed to be hit repeatedly.  

As I said it was a family tradition, which became enshrined in folklore (certainly as far as drummers of my generation were concerned) that only the eldest son of the Zildjian family would be allowed to know the secret of the manufacturing process. 

When they were first produced, cymbals were used for a completely different purpose; they were clashed vigorously together in times of battle to frighten the enemy. In the absence of any information to the contrary, I’m guessing it worked! During the 19th Century, the Zildjian Company moved from manufacturing noisemakers to panic the enemies of the Ottoman Empire into submission, to making musical instruments designed to fit into the world of music.

The Janissary bands of the Sultan enthusiastically adopted the cymbals and used them for calls to prayer, religious feasts, royal weddings and the music of the Ottoman army. 

In 1651 the first passing on of the secret was from Avedis to his eldest son Ahkam. Cymbals were becoming more mainstream, being used in military bands, and by the time the next century began, Mozart composed music with cymbals in mind, which would also be followed in the following centuries by composers such as Haydn, Berlioz and Wagner.

Craigie, Armand and Debbie Zildjian

Time went by and the secret was successfully passed through the generations, and business seems to have been rather good. But the second Avedis wanted more and at the middle of the 19th Century actually built himself a boat and sailed (not without difficulty I suspect) firstly to Marseilles, and then to London to exhibit his cymbals at trade fairs. When he died in 1865 the business and the secret changed hands to his brother because his own sons were too young. 

Eventually, in 1909 Kerope passed the secret back to the family, but Haroutian II, the next in line, didn’t want anything to do with cymbals. He refused the job so it passed to his younger brother Aram. For various reasons the Zildjian story is convoluted not least because Aram joined the Armenian Nationalists and he and his friends tried to blow-up the Sultan. Naturally this was frowned upon and he was forced to retreat to Bucharest in Romania where he did what any Zildjian worth his salt would do - open another cymbal factory.

On Aram’s return to Turkey he began to export Zildjian cymbals all over the world – especially to the USA.  

Meanwhile Avedis Armand Zildjian III emigrated to Boston 1908 and started a business selling candy, while Kerope Zilcan continued to make cymbals in Turkey under the ‘K. Zildjian Constantinople’ name. In 1923, the Turkish Republic was established and the name Constantinople was soon officially changed to Istanbul. This resulted in the change of the company’s name and trademark from ‘K. Zildjian Constantinople’ to ‘K. Zildjian Istanbul’. Around 1926, Aram Zildjian signed an exclusive American distribution agreement for K. Zildjian cymbals with Fred Gretsch Co. 

In approximately 1928 Avedis III got the call from his uncle Aram to return to his mother country because it was his time to be head of the cymbal company. However, he also refused. Even though he’d been apprenticed as a cymbal-smith he was now an American citizen and if he was going to make cymbals, he would prefer to make Turkish cymbals in the USA. So instead, at a somewhat advanced age Aram Zildjian relocated to the ‘Land of Opportunity’ retaught his nephew the art of making cymbals and began manufacturing them in Massachusetts. The Avedis Zildjian Co. was formed a year late and by 1929, this new company became a competitor to the K Zildjian Company based in Turkey. 

Craigie Zildjian

Avedis made a great many innovations in cymbals that are still around today. He was the first to develop thinner drum-set cymbals at the suggestion of eminent players of the era and successfully changed his cymbals to fit the burgeoning jazz music of the time which demanded cleaner-sounding instruments you could not just ride but also play phrases on. 

Avedis also gave his cymbals onomatopoeic names, such as: ‘Ride’, ‘Crash’, ‘Splash’, ‘Hi-Hat’, ‘Sizzle’, and so on. Jazz drummers including Gene Krupa, Buddy Rich, Louie Bellson, Shelly Manne, Cozy Cole, and Papa Jo Jones used Avedis Zildjian cymbals. The cymbals were made with both automated processes and hand hammering, 

The only time the ‘secret’ was ever written down was during World War II when, of necessity, it was consigned to a vault as both of Avedis’ sons were fighting in the war.

Zildjian ended the hand-hammering tradition in 1964 after a huge rise in demand, resulting from the popularity of the Beatles'' drummer Ringo Starr, which left them with 90,000 cymbals on backorder! 

In 1968, the K. Zildjian Co. and all its European trademarks were brought back into the fold of the Avedis Zildjian Co. 

Also in 1968 the Zildjian Company was having worker problems with operators in the oven and machine rooms, so Avedis split the production into two separate operations, one for rolling and casting only, and the other for finish work. This coincided with the opening of the Azco factory in Meductic, New Brunswick, Canada where previously some of the family had gone to fish. This new Azco factory also allowed Zildjian to export more cymbals while avoiding the prohibitive tariffs imposed by the US Government.

For a couple of years this new Azco factory exclusively produced ''Zilco'' cymbals. These were thin rolled instruments produced without any hammering at all. This of course kept the costs down. 

Zildjian invented the modern process for pressing cymbals into shape around this time in the Azco factory. Prior to this it was done by what was called  ''bumping'' with  a ‘drop-hammer’ in the Quincy plant. 

K hammering on the left, A hammering on the right

By 1970, Zildjian business was burgeoning and to keep up with demand they needed to sequester all the production facilities offered by the Azco operation to create their regular Zildjian line. Therefore the Quincy factory would transport castings to be turned into finished cymbals in New Brunswick. At one point it transpires Azco was responsible for almost half of Zildjian''s output. 

In 1975 there were some problems with the Turkish government, and Zildjian went to Turkey and brought over some key workers to start making K Zildjian cymbals in the Azco plant. This was a remarkable time for the Zildjian family because it was the first time that Kerope and Avedis Zildjian were working together to make the same ‘Zildjian’ cymbals, after years of competing with each other as A. Zildjian versus K. Zildjian Istanbul. 

If you''ve wondered why the A. and K. are different sounds and looks, apparently Avedis preferred concentric hammering, while Kerope preferred radial hammering. The concentric hammering produces a cleaner, more consistent sound, whereas the radial hammering produces a more complex, darker sound.

Zildjians first stick factory

These ranges were made until 1979 when Avedis died and Robert split from Zildjian to eventually make his own cymbals in the Meductic Azco factory, with Kerope and his son. 

As I said in the first paragraph, the Avedis Zildjian Company does not only make cymbals - it has also been producing sticks since 1988. The drumsticks were once produced in Alabama, but nowadays they’re made in the Vic Firth factory in Newport, Maine. Endorsers are encouraged to come up with their own drumstick designs, which are then sold to the public as their ‘Artist Series’ drumsticks. 

The Avedis Zildjian company now produces its cymbals in Norwell, Massachusetts. Armand Zildjian headed the company after his father, Avedis’ death, until his own passing in 2002. The Zildjian company is now run by Armand’s daughter Craigie with  her sister Debbie – both of whom have been entrusted with the secret of the process. This was not the first time the females of the family had been involved, as one Victoria Zildjian had apparently once been the keeper of the Zildjian flame.  

Bob with Avedis at the factory

BTW I may not be able to turn lead into gold but I can claim to have seen the future. It’s a new line called ‘A Avedis’ and I’ve actually played them in anger at a gig and also in a Zildjian film. Unfortunately I had to pass them on to Stevie White who is now putting them through their paces. No doubt they will feature on  in the fullness of time, but I’ll give you a clue about them – they have a very ‘sweet’ sound reminiscent of the Sixties!  Well... as far as I can remember the sixties that is - although trust me, I was definitely there...

Bob Henrit

June 2016

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