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Chinese Made Stringed Instruments Are Becoming Increasingly Common in US Shops

The Asian nation has become a major player in the US stringed-instrument market

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The violins, violas, cellos, and double basses can be found in shops from Berkeley, California, to Des Moines, Iowa, from New York City to Charlotte, North Carolina. They're sold under such names as Andreas Eastman, Johannes Köhr, Andrew Schroetter, and countless others. But no matter how European-sounding their names, many of these shiny new stringed instruments on display in stores throughout the United States share a common origin: China.

Indeed, thousands of stringed instruments on the U.S. market now hail from a country far removed geographically and culturally from the European tradition of string music, and this Asian nation has become a major lutherie center.

As recently as five years ago, there was little love for Chinese-made violins among American instrument buyers and sellers. Since then, however, those instruments have taken the market by storm—especially at the introductory student level—thanks to a combination of improvements in quality and low prices made possible by cheap labor costs.

Yet it's impossible to say how many workshops and factories in China are making and manufacturing stringed instruments. "I've been to dozens of them, and I don't think I've even scratched the surface," reports Stephen Sheppard, president and owner of Tucson, Arizona-based retailer Southwest Strings. "It's a big country."

What's In a Name?

Like many domestic manufacturers, distributors, and retailers, Southwest Strings has become an active partner with the Chinese violin industry, selling both factory-produced instruments under the Klaus Mueller label and workshop-made instruments in the Yuan Qin line.

Even the stores that carry these instruments don't always know who has made them. "We don't know where the workshop is unless our suppliers tell us," explains Matt Zeller, an apprentice violin maker at Donley Violins in Charlotte, North Carolina. "We have suppliers who have family-owned workshops and others who will deal with anyone."

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That confusion is widespread. "It’s laughable how much rebranding and mismatching and criss-crossing is going on," adds Jason Torreano, product manager for the string brand of the Music Group (formerly Boosey & Hawkes Musical Instruments), which sells its Chinese instruments under the Andrew Schroetter brand. "I wouldn't be surprised if [a single] instrument workshop in China was producing instruments that in the U.S. are being sold under ten or 20 names."

In fact, the import and sale of Chinese stringed instruments has become so widespread that there's literally no way to tell all the names under which they're being sold here. Many of the instruments come to the United States unlabeled, and wholesalers and individual shops attach labels to them that give no suggestion of their provenance. "They'll take an Italian-sounding last name and stick a first name on it, like Medici Alfredo," Zeller observes.

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