An Ottoman Alchemist Invented the World’s Most Famous Cymbals
Trying to make gold through alchemy, a craftsman invented the alloy which resulted in the coveted cymbals of Zildjian.
The practice of alchemy has resulted in endless inventions and discoveries, many of them the results of mere chance (and some will say, of fate). From this practice —often called, today, a proto-science— several of the most unexpected scientific findings from antiquity had arisen, especially in the field of chemistry. One of these fortunate events took place in 1623 (although some will say it was 1618) in Constantinople, then capital of the Ottoman Empire. A blacksmith and alchemist discovered the precise alloy of metals which could produce the cymbals which sounded better than any others in the empire. Without knowing it, he began a brand which exists even to this day, owned by one of the world’s oldest companies.
In the world of music there are few instrument brands with the tradition, history, and sheer age as has Zildjian. The name, by the way, honors the original alloy’s creator. Four hundred years ago, a blacksmith of Armenian origin named Avedis, achieved a perfect blend of bronze, tin and another secret ingredient which would result in the empire’s best cymbals; flexible and rigid at the same time, capable of producing a sound like no other.
The sound quality of the metal captivated the Sultan Oman II who arranged that Avedis could provide the musical instruments to his court. They were christened Zildjian, which means in Armenian, “son of the cymbals maker.” The family of the artisan and alchemist thus founded a shop in the Samatya neighborhood in Constantinople, and to which the metal was delivered by camel caravan for many decades.
Avedis bequeathed the secret recipe to his family and it was passed on from generation to generation. Zildjian’s cymbals were admired by none other than Mozart and his contemporaries who referred to them simply as “Turkish saucers.” Little by little, the instruments were assimilated by musicians and orchestras, as well as by military bands, around the world. In 1851, a sample of the cymbals were taken to the Great Exhibition of London, and in 1865, Kerope Zildjian created the K Zildjian line, which is produced to this day.
The Armenians were a minority in Turkey for centuries and so eventually, due to ethnic and political conflicts, the Zildjian company and their secret recipe went to the United States. Shortly thereafter, at precisely the time when jazz was taking off in the 1920s, several stores and expert users of the brand assisted in perfecting the cymbals, making them thinner and more responsive, able to stand out even amidst the big band sounds of the age. This was the birth of an empire and, interestingly, a gold mine for the company.
The story of Zildjian coincides with the history of music in the West, always just touched by Eastern influences. But further, it’s a legend that unites the ancient secrets of alchemy, the beauty of the hand-made, and the tradition of one Armenian family who took refuge in America.
This Smithsonian Channel video tells the incredible story of Zildjian and his legendary cymbals:
Image: Wikimedia Commons – Kim2480
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