Unlocking the mysteries of violin-making


Violin-making is sometimes called a “lost art.” More than 300 years ago, Italian great violin maker Antonio Stradivari succeeded in raising the craft of violin-making to the level of perfection. The master, however, died in 1737 without passing on the secrets of his acoustically perfect violins, even to his sons who assisted him.

According to modern research, factors such as a violin’s design, varnish, the thickness of front and back, and even the condition of microscopic pores within the wood influence the beauty of the violin’s tones. However, to this day, no one has actually determined how to make violins as perfect as Stradivari’s.

“Violins are full of mysteries, which keeps me fascinated with violin-making,” says Chang Heryern Jin, a Korea-born violin craftsman who lives in Tokyo. Chang’s violins are highly esteemed and favored by many professional musicians. His newly produced violins are priced at 1.5 million yen, but decades-old ones go for more than 3 million yen.

Chang was internationally recognized in 1976 when he was awarded the first prize in an international competition of violin- and cello-making in the United States. He earned five gold medals out of six categories in the competition, and was given the special title of Hors Concours & Master Maker. There are only five craftsmen who hold the title in the world, and he is the only Asian.

Chang came to Japan in 1941. After World War II ended, his family went back to Korea but he stayed here, and studied English literature at Meiji University while working at night for his living expenses and school tuition.

He was privately taking violin lessons, but gradually began to realize the limits of his ability as a musician. One day he attended a lecture on the mysteries of violins, and instantly decided to become a violin maker.

After graduating, Chang visited several violin craftsmen in the country, asking them to accept him as an apprentice; however, due to his nationality, they all turned him down. When even a factory of mass-produced violins refused to hire him, he gave up the idea of apprenticing.

While working during the day as a construction worker in Nagano, Chang started creating violins at night, depending only on an old English-language book titled “Violin-Making: As It Was, and Is” by Edward Heron-Allen.

The book taught him the basics of violin-making, but it did not explain how to make “clear, deep, soft and warm tones.” He experimented with all the possibilities he could think of — even what he saw in his dreams.

“Interestingly, ideas from my dreams sometimes worked out,” he says. “Still today, I keep a pencil and memo pad at my bedside, so that I can write down any dreams related to violins.”

In 1962 Chang once again moved to Tokyo, and met a violinist/teacher who showed an interest in his handmade violins. He ordered many violins from him, and also requested Chang to repair his own expensive violins.

To repair those masterpieces, Chang was allowed to take them apart and put them back together. It was an invaluable experience for the craftsman. After dismantling those violins, he would examine each piece of wood closely, rubbing them with his hands and against cheeks, sniffing and even licking them.

Now he can instantly tell the quality of a violin or the problems to be modified by just holding the violin. It is not easy, however, to put into words the subtle differences he can feel. Even his three sons/apprentices cannot fully understand what he tries to say, but he hopes they will in the near future, Chang says.

“There are no geniuses in the world. You succeed in something only by maintaining curiosity and tenacity,” Chang says. “I think I have resolved five or six secrets (of violin-making), though those are not all of them. I think I’m very persistent. I want to keep tackling the violin’s mysteries in the life after death, if there is such a thing.”