Celebrating the joy of craftsmanship

Mathijs Heyligers, master violin maker, Cremona
Image caption Mathijs Heyligers is one of Cremona's numerous violin makers

In a world of robotics, where machines control machines, and people wait for the attention of an automated response system, it is wonderful to re-encounter a craftsman or woman.

With huge respect to the materials they use, they labour - their hands determining the utility, beauty or eatability of the things that slowly emerge from their work.

It is a real privilege to run into this craftsmanship in making business programmes, which are so often about companies and corporate behaviour.

Craftspeople you encounter in all sorts of circumstances, such as a New Zealand special effects movie workshop, or on farms and vineyards in many parts of the world.

For example, in the fields of Uttar Pradesh, in India, cowpats saved for fuel are stored in huts built from the same material, and then imprinted with variously arranged handprints, for decoration.

There are craftsmen here in a fish and chip shop in central London, where I am writing this in longhand as the team fries up a wondrous plate of plaice and chips with the same skill they have been demonstrating for at least 40 years.

Craftspeople have much to teach the mass producers and the advertising agencies. They take what they do very seriously, and they take the individuals they are doing it for seriously as well - otherwise known as customers.

Centuries of tradition

I was recently in the Italian city of Cremona, a world centre for the making of string instruments for the past 500 years or more, and still home to a cluster of top luthiers, as the Italians term them.

Here you see the potency of craftsmanship at work, and the power of the cluster of likeminded people to create a longstanding business entity.

Image caption One of the city's violin makers at work creating a new instrument

It all started a long time ago. Cremona in the Middle Ages was one of a succession of wealthy Italian cities with courts, whose ruling families employed professional musicians.

There was a demand for music, and it was rewarded. Craftsmanship was respected, and from it emerged a great tradition.

In Cremona in the middle of the 16th Century, the instrument maker Andrea Amati is credited with producing an entirely new model of fiddle, with a much more evocative sound than its medieval predecessors.

Then, in the second half of the 17th Century, came Antonio Stradivari, another local instrument maker. His achievements became stellar.

Image caption The city's violin makers use centuries old techniques

In his long working life, Stradivari built more than 1,000 violins, violas and cellos. He achieved sound and musical expressiveness that many of the world's best performers think can never be equalled.

The weather, or rather the climate, may have quite a lot to do with Stradivari's mastery of his craft. Violins are best made from two different woods - stripy grained spruce for the top, or soundboard, and maple for the back.

The century before Stradivari started making instruments may have produced the perfect growing climate for the trees in the high forests of Italy's Dolomites mountain range, from where Cremona's violin makers bought their wood.

A sequence of what appear to be abnormally long cold winters meant the trees grew slowly and steadily. When finally cut, their wood proved to be of exceptional resonance.

Workshops and reputations

Stradivari died in 1737 at the age of 93, but the tradition lived on.

Cremona became one of those now fashionable and desirable economic and geographic entities - a cluster of craft enterprise. Luthiers, trained under master practitioners, won a reputation for their work for others, and then set up workshops on their own.

Image caption Shops selling violins are dotted around Cremona

Buyers came to Cremona because they would have a choice of instruments - some wonderful, some average, at various prices.

You knocked on the door of a shop or a workshop, were overwhelmed by the craftsmanship employed behind the scenes, played a few instruments, chose one, came back the next day to reassure yourself, agreed payment terms, and eventually took it home.

In many respects, the experience cannot have changed very much over the centuries. Authenticity, tradition, skill, the sensuous smells of wood being shaved and shaped, and then the varnish.

Image caption Stefano Trabucchi demonstrates the sound of one of his violins

This all went on for decade after decade - masters, apprentices, workshops doing everything by hand, and basking in the glow of the ultimate Cremonese master, Antonio Stradivari.

In the late 1930s, the city established a school to teach the basics of the craft. It is today thriving, with dozens of students on a five-year course who come from all over the world. Italian students are now in a minority.

They learn how to make or restore violins, and then complete their learning process in a master's established workshop, often in the city.

Then, making their reputation instrument by instrument, they often then stay on in Cremona for the rest of their lives. At the very least, it's a nice, quiet, small place to live.

New Asian market

Violin making (like so much craftsmanship) is a lonely job. But the city lives and breathes violins, from the sensuous forms of string instruments cases in the posh workshop windows, to the violin-shaped confectionery in old-fashioned sweetshops down ancient alleyways - originally Roman streets.

Image caption Cremona lives and breathes violins

And the luthiers love showing off their instruments to would-be purchasers.

It is very moving when the man who has created the violin takes it down from its resting place, picks up the bow, and lovingly coaxes from it the harmonies he intended it to produce when he first took a chisel to the maple.

Then there is the serendipity of the cluster. They meet in the street or the bar, these makers - they gossip, they confer. In recent years they've been taking action to enhance the city's international reputation.

The established luthiers have set up the Consorzio Liutai Antonio Stradivari Cremona.

In essence, this consortium is a revival of the mediaeval guild idea, enabling its members to issue certificates of authenticity for their individual instruments.

"Made in Cremona" is not a guarantee of quality, but is policed by a group with a strong vested interest in not allowing anyone to let the side down.

You might think that the market for new violins costing 20,000 euros ($27,000; £16,000) or more would be a pretty steady one, but over the past 20 years it has been transformed by the rise of a new marketplace for Western music in Asian countries - particularly China and Japan.

There are now millions of new string instrument learners, and some of them want quite expensive new instruments with a heritage and a history. They come to Cremona, or Cremona goes to them. The luthiers have learnt how to find dealers far from home by going to trade fairs in faraway places.

While I was in the workshop of a leading maker - originally from Colombia, as it happened, but Cremonese by decades of adoption - into the shop came a Japanese mother and her little girl, looking for a 25,000 euro violin. The language of music is becoming universal.

The value of craftsmanship

Today Cremona may not be making the finest instruments in the world, as once it most certainly did. Experts tell me there are finer lone craftspeople in Germany, for example.

Image caption Giorgio Grisales is business director of the local trade association

But assessing an instrument is a very subjective thing.

My brief stay in Cremona was a vivid reminder of the value of craft and the handmade in a world which now prizes superbly mass-produced goods, and instant networks of friends and communication.

Individuality is an important component of being human. Craftspeople have wonderfully individual stories to tell about the things they make, slowly and carefully. In an industrialised world, they still have a lot to tell us about being properly human.

Peter Day reports from Cremona for In Business on BBC Radio 4 on Thursday, 28 August at 20:30 BST, repeated on Sunday, 31 August at 21:30 BST.

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