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A rising star of Italian violin making is a 32-year-old South Korean

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Art of Craft is a series about artisans whose work rises to the level of art.


When Ayoung An was 8 years old, her parents bought her a violin. She slept every night with the instrument on the pillow next to her.

Two years later, a store selling musical instruments opened in Pyeongtaek, South Korea, her hometown, and An became a fixture, asking the owner questions. “I think I disturbed him a lot,” said An, now 32.

As a teenager, she decided to become a luthier. Eventually, a journey full of twists and turns took her to Cremona, in northern Italy, a renowned hub for luthiers, including masters like Antonio Stradivari, since the 16th century. There, An, a rising star in the world of violin making with international awards under his belt, runs his own workshop.

Located on a quiet cobblestone street, An’s studio is bathed in natural light and filled with books and piles of pieces of wood that must air dry for five to ten years before becoming instruments or risk warping . She shares the two-room studio with her husband, Wangsoo Han, who is also a luthier.

On a recent Monday, An was hunched over a thick, 20-inch piece of wood held in place by two metal clamps. Pressing her body for leverage, she scraped the wood with a gouge, removing layers, her hands steady and firm. It formed a curved neck called a “parchment”, one of the last stages in the manufacture of a violin or cello. That day, the luthier dove into a commission for a cello, which shares a similar manufacturing process.

Violins like An’s, made in the tradition of Stradivari and Giuseppe Guarneri, require about two months of work and sell for between 16,000 and 17,000 euros, or $17,500 to $18,500. “I can make a violin in three weeks, but I don’t want to,” said An. “This item is very valuable to the person who buys it.”

An was 17 when she hatched her plan to learn the craft: She would move in with an American family in a Chicago suburb so she could attend a local high school, master English, and eventually study at the Chicago School of Violin Making . There were no such schools in Korea at the time. Her parents, upset that she was moving so far away to pursue an uncertain career, tried to stop her.

“I didn’t eat for days,” An said. Finally, they gave in. “When I said goodbye to my parents at the airport, they were crying,” she said. “I wasn’t. I was so excited.

Two years after moving to Illinois, she discovered that one of the most famous violin-making schools, the International School of Violin Making, was actually in Cremona. So, in 2011, at age 20, she moved again to a new country.

Cremona was home to some of the most famous luthiers and stringed instrument makers in history: Stradivari; Andrea Amati, considered “the father of the violin”; and the Guarneri family. For the 160 to 200 luthiers in Cremona, the sound quality of the masters remains the ultimate goal. “The traditional way is not to experiment,” An said.

Around the studio, small pots of pigments for varnishing sat on shelves and tables next to pots of powders – crushed glass and minerals – for polishing. On one wall were dozens of knives, scissors and saws. Also present: dentist tools to scrape the instrument for a more antique look.

An is the youngest member of a Cremona consortium dedicated to maintaining violin-making traditions. She is so immersed in the Cremona method of violin making that, at the suggestion of a mentor, she created a stage name, Anna Arietti, to better integrate into Italian culture.

An important moment is when luthiers place their label inside the instrument, called “baptism”. To make his label, An puts his signature in ink on a small piece of paper – a browned page from a second-hand book, giving the impression of age. Then, using a traditional homemade blend of melted bovine hide and rabbit hide as a long-lasting adhesive, she sticks the label to the inside half of the instrument. She also engraves her signature into the instrument with a small heated brand.

Then the two halves are sealed together, completing the main body of the instrument. The name of its Italian artist remains inside, intact as long as the violin.

“That’s why I wanted to become a violin maker,” said An. “At least one person who plays my violin will remember me 100 or 200 years later.”

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