In Cremona, Italy, two Kiwanians create exquisite works of art … with a purpose.
Story and photos by Kasey Jackson
The contrast between the two is instantly obvious.
The older master luthier uses mostly his hands to create his works of art. He’s a one-man show, in pursuit of perfection of an age-old mastery. To be happiest, he needs to touch the wood, to be cloaked in his time-worn white overcoat, sitting in his workshop that smells of old varnish and wood shavings. He’s surrounded by an exquisitely crafted quartet of instruments, all with unique voices that more or less sell themselves.
The younger entrepreneur — and one-time student of the older master — loves the heritage and lore of the master’s craft but pursues new techniques. He and his team (many whom have been with him 20 years) prefer machines to ensure proper cuts and angles. And while he, too, wears a white coat in his workshop, he’s just as comfortable in a tailored, pressed suit. He’s one part designer, one part salesman.
The two men — known the world over for their contributions to music — couldn’t be more different. Yet they are, surprisingly, the same. They are friends. Collaborators. Artists. Kiwanians.
Rubbing his thumb over the perfectly contoured curves of lightly colored bird’s-eye maple, master luthier Stefano Conia makes eye contact as he talks about his life’s work. Instinctively knowing the feel of the instrument in his hands — today a cello — he needs only to glance down every so often as he works on his next masterpiece. He needs only to feel it in his calloused, dust-covered hands to know.
It’s coming together exactly as it should.
A stream of ethereal, natural light pours through the windows of his small workshop in the heart of Cremona, Italy, where he has crafted string instruments for the past several decades. A recording of Vivaldi plays softly in the background as he talks about his life, his love of Italy and his passion for creating string instruments just as other masters have for centuries.
“I was always interested in music … this was a good thing,” explains Conia, a member of the Kiwanis Club of Cremona, as he shaves a piece of ebony and preps the cello for the addition of its tailpiece. Laughing, he recalls the time his father, also a master luthier, challenged him to take on the family trade.
“One day, I was very curious. I saw my father making violins. It didn’t look difficult, I told him. He was very angry. He gave me a piece of wood. He said, ‘Here. Make it.’ It was not so easy,” he admits, raising an eyebrow and flashing a quick grin.
Sitting nearby, Dimitri Musafia, dressed in a perfectly tailored suit, smiles as he watches the man he calls “Maestro.” Musafia, an American-born resident of Cremona, knows all-too-well the motions of creating such art. He, along with his mentor and friend Conia, studied at the famed International Violinmakers School of Cremona, where the best of the best learn the trade passed down from masters such as the famed Antonio Stradivari, native of Cremona and possibly the most famous violinmaker in history. The work here is delicate, detailed; the artist not only dedicated and passionate but also disciplined and knowledgeable.
“I was always interested in music …
… this was a good thing.”
Musafia journeyed to Cremona at the age of 16 to begin studies. He finished in 1982 and was awarded a gold medal for his skills. But, after making about 30 stringed instruments, things changed.
“It was the summer after I graduated from the violinmaking school,” explains Musafia, who was recruited into the Kiwanis Club of Cremona by Conia. “I was on vacation, sitting in my living room in Long Beach, California, and I thought, maybe this isn’t for me after all. I started thinking: I need to get into something in a parallel field because I didn’t want to throw out everything I had learned.
“To become successful in violinmaking, I had to copy the old masters. I had to do what’s been done for centuries, and that’s not me. So I decided I was going to make violin cases so I could really do things my way. I wanted to express the creative and artistic potential something like this would have.”
Did he know where to begin?
“I had no idea how to make a violin case,” he says, laughing.
Maestro Conia taught at the violinmakers school for 25 years, sharing tips and tricks and all he knows about the precise art of lute making. He has made countless violins, violas and cellos. He’s even helped restore a priceless Stradivari harp. As he stands at his work table inside his picture-perfect workshop, he shares stories and explains each step he takes creating the cello he holds in his hands.
“And now, it is very important to glue well, this neck,” he says as he slides the neck into the space he has carved out of the wooden body of the cello. “Because with the tension of the strings, it’s very easy to move it. And if it moves after we glue it, it is a disaster.”
As Conia sits on his work stool, clad in his overcoat stained and spotted with varying hues of varnish, he gently paints the glue onto the wood, clamps it into place, then sets aside the working cello to allow it to dry.
He satisfactorily slaps his hands onto his knees and looks at the observers around him.
“Now if you have patience, I will show you a ready cello,” he says, standing to walk out of the room.
Yes. There’s patience for that.
“This is a cello, ready. About six months of work,” he says as he enters the workshop space with a stunning piece of what can only be described as art.
Though he admits it’s difficult to estimate the amount of time that goes into each instrument, Conia says it averages to about 600 hours for a cello and 220 hours for a violin.
“I don’t use machines. I only need my hands and patience,” he says as he playfully glides the bow across the strings.
Standing in the showroom at his workshop, Dimitri Musafia beams with pride when he talks about his violin cases, several of which are laid out for display. The cases are all different — adorned with Swarovski crystals, Gucci fabrics, leather, satins and silks. Each case takes hours and hours of precise handiwork; some pieces cut by laser, promising a perfect fit every time. Many of the cases are custom-made with specific details.
He notes one case’s special feature.
“This was developed by Stradivari, actually,” he says, pointing to its distinctive, artistic pattern. “I got it from a scan from the Smithsonian in Washington, DC, and I had it reproduced in this material.”
Each case also features one of Musafia’s own inventions — a humidifier — and is backed by his promise: “I formed a corporate philosophy. I was going to protect the instrument better than any other case ever had.”
In fact, Musafia has a line of cases that can withstand almost anything.
“You can drive over these cases and they won’t break,” he says. “We did it for an advertising stunt — to prove it can be done. And to make people aware of how important it is to protect the instrument. Not everyone understands that. They all go for the lightest case possible. But if you have a US$5 million Stradivari in there — and at $5 million it means you have a good one, but not a great one — it’s got to be protected.”
What started out as an idea 30 years ago, a way for Musafia to express his creativity, has grown into a strong business with a committed staff. It seems his idea to stop making violins and start making cases was indeed a good one.
“The cases are in demand,” he says. “We have up to a six-month waiting list. I simply can’t make enough.”
It’s dinnertime, and the table is filled with Kiwanis members and chatter about music, Italian cars and, of course, food and wine. The conversation turns to violins and violin cases, again, and how successful Conia and Musafia are in their respective fields.
Musafia isn’t comfortable sharing exactly who carries one of his now-famous violin cases — he doesn’t like to brag — but he offers that many famous musicians own a Musafia case. He’s sold to sultans and “undisclosed buyers” who wish to remain anonymous so as to not attract too much attention.
Luthier Conia is also a bit shy about who owns one of his instruments. He doesn’t mass produce them — it’s impossible with the amount of work each one takes — so he’s not in it for money or fame. But when asked if he’d recognize one of his instruments in an orchestra, his answer says it all:
“Would you know your children if you saw them in a crowded street?”
Team effort benefits Red Cross
Stefano Conia and Dimitri Musafia are not only friends and members of the same Kiwanis club. They’ve also worked on several projects together. They’ve made two violins and two cases for loan to young musicians in Cremona who show talent but can’t afford a really good instrument.
And in 2012, a year after an earthquake and tsunami devastated Japan, Conia had an idea for another joint project with his friend.
“We found out there were a lot of orphans as a result of this natural disaster,” Musafia says. “We figured out a way to raise money. We decided to make a violin, case and bow. The violin was made by Mr. Conia, his son and two other people — so it was a big effort by a lot of people.”
The violin, case and bow sold at auction for US$26,000, which was donated to the Japan Red Cross to help fund initiatives for children orphaned by the disaster.