With a four-year waiting list and a $50,000-plus price tag, Sam Zygmuntowicz’s creations are some of the most sought-after string instruments in the world of classical music.As garbage goes, this is beautiful. On a high table in the attic-level workshop of Sam Zygmuntowicz’s Brooklyn townhome, a pile of wood shavings has been left for later disposal. This is spruce, shaved from what will eventually be the front of someone’s violin. More specifically, this is spruce cut from a tree that was felled in the Paneveggio forest, at the foothills of the Dolomites in Italy. That’s the very same forest where famed 17th-century violin maker Antonio Stradivari sourced his spruce. And even shaved down to about 2.5 millimeters thick, this wood is magical.
Zygmuntowicz (pronounced Zig-mun-TOE-vich) holds one of these curled-edged castoffs up so it catches the sunlight that’s filtering into the workshop. Raised, rippling wood grain glimmers in the light. The piece looks like it has been chemically enhanced; stained and sealed, maybe. But it hasn’t. “This is just really good wood,” Zygmuntowicz? says, crunching the cracker-dry shaving between his fingers.
Identifying good, traditional wood — of which Zygmuntowicz has a lifetime supply aging like fine wine one floor below the workshop, in the only air-conditioned room in his townhome — is just one of the skills he spent 15 years developing before he went into business for himself in 1985. In the nearly 26 years since, he has developed a reputation? as a highly skilled craftsman, able to carve wood with a surgeon’s precision and a sculptor’s flair to deliver an instrument that can produce the exact sound his clients want.
Those clients include some of the biggest names in classical music; Yo-Yo Ma, Cho-Liang Lin, Joshua Bell, Maxim Vengerov and every member of the Emerson String Quartet are among them. So, too, was renowned violinist Isaac Stern, who bought two violins from Zygmuntowicz, including an accurate-to-the-millimeter replica of a Del Gesu, a violin made in the early 1700s by Italian master Bartolomeo Giuseppe Guarneri. That replica sold at auction for $130,000 — as much as anyone, anywhere, at any time has ever paid for a violin made by a living violin maker.