Five lessons from the violin maker of Florence

There is a shop in Florence that is so tiny that most pedestrians pass it by without even noticing. Yet when they do, they will stop by, bewitched. It is as wide as a cupboard from the outside. Inside, it is smaller than most walk-in closets in houses of the United States. That minute space encapsulates the stuff of legends and more magic than Aladdin’s lamp. Atop the entrance, a sign says “Liutaio”, the word for luthier in Italian.

The master violin maker is Jamie Marie Lazzara, who left her native Southern California for the homeland of her ancestors in 1987. After studying her craft in Cremona, the Lombardy city made famous by Stradivarius and some other of the finest violins in the world, she set up shop in Florence. She made a violin for Itzhak Perlman that rivals his Stradivari of 1714, a “Soil.” She has also made a violin for Malia Obama, a daughter of former U.S. President Barack Obama, that has a market value of $64,000, Lazzara says.

Lazzara’s speech is unencumbered by false modesty yet is plain and straightforward, with a natural humility that comes to her as naturally as her talent for making the violins. “All my instruments have one price: $12,000.” The backlog of her waiting list is at least two years long.

Here are five lessons we draw from her experience:

  1. There is a market for handcrafted, unique goods. People will pay up for things that are worth it. That is especially true for Italy generally and Florence, home of some of the best shoes, furniture and instruments in the world. “When you are paying more you are paying less,” says Romano Livi, a now retired merchant and restorer of antiques in Tuscany. “You are buying it for a lifetime.” Even if or when robots start making violins, there will always be discerning customers who will pay a premium for luthiers like Lazzara. Those are the ones who judge things by their value rather than their price.
  2. Size does not matter. Not in the case of violins, at least. Small as they are, the music that expert hands get out of them is immeasurable. Moreover: Lazzara has turned her cupboard-sized workshop into such an enchanting venue that not even a store a thousand times its dimensions could match it in beauty and magic.
  3. Migrations may enrich the world. Anybody would find it curious that anybody would leave America back for the Old World. Yet Lazzara did, to the benefit of everyone: Italy and Florence, certainly, but also her customers all over the world.
  4. “Find the genius in you.” Lazzara said so with forceful conviction. In her talk with your correspondent, she said everybody must search within themselves what their true calling is. We add: hard work will bring the genius out of them. You will hardly see Lazzara lifting her head when passing by her store. She is always leaning over her desk, making violins.
  5. “Don’t give up.” These were the parting words from Lazzara after your correspondent told her that the violin was one of his childhood, and hence lifetime, passions. As your writer confided to her, circumstances conspired against the fulfillment of this ambition. His grandmother was going to bring him a violin from Armenia in 1974, but thieves entered her house and took it with them a few months before her flight to Argentina. And after that, one thing or the other always stood in the way of it. In 1991, at the late age of 23, your correspondent bought a violin in Prague but it was confiscated by Czech border guards at the border with Hungary. Two years later he bought a new one at the same store in Prague and took up lessons with violinist Abraham Buchhalter in Buenos Aires. Yet he had to quit when he won an scholarship to study in England. And the violin has now passed to the much better hands of his nephew. But the words of Lazzara are still echoing in your correspondent’s head. And who knows, he may still find in Venice a violinist patient enough to teach this old dog a new trick. At the right price, obviously.