Bolstered both by his reputation and that record-setting auction, Zygmunto?wicz’s business has been growing in recent years, even as the overall economy has been hampered by bursting bubbles and banking crises. He now commands $54,000 for his instruments, up 200 percent from what he charged in 1995. And despite the rising price tag, his customers keep coming. Zygmuntowicz, who makes on average six new violins or cellos per year, now has a four-year waiting list. But the soft-spoken 55-year-old could be doing even better than that — making more instruments and probably charging even more money for them. He just cares too much about his customers to do that.
That care is shown, in part, by the many 15-hour days Zygmuntowicz still spends in his workshop on the edge of Park Slope. Here, he keeps all manner of gouges and chisels and files and drill presses and other small, sharp, traditional violin-making instruments. There’s also a giant band saw that he somehow managed to get up three flights of narrow stairs, and there’s a 27-year-old apprentice who, like his master, sports round glasses and a head of wild curls.
But maybe the most important thing here is a beat-up binder, inside of which are the handwritten names of every client Zygmuntowicz has ever made an instrument for and the names of the people who now possess those instruments. There are also highly detailed diagrams of each instrument and notes on every adjustment he has made since the varnish dried and the instrument was delivered.
What the binder represents is the value-added proposition in buying a Zygmuntowicz instrument: a constant exchange ?between the violin’s craftsman and its user that starts well before the first piece of wood is cut and that can continue years into the life of the instrument. This, Zygmunto?wicz says, is the most important tool in his workshop.
“I wouldn’t say I’m more skilled than other? violin masters. But part of what makes me different is that I keep wanting to find out from my clients, ‘Is the instrument good? Is it really good?’ ” he says. “To get the answer, I need to make my clients as comfortable as possible criticizing my instruments.”
Not many businesses would invite such criticism, especially not ones that guarantee complete refunds to dissatisfied customers, which Zygmuntowicz does.
“I’m going to try to make exactly what you like,” Zygmuntowicz says as he adjusts his glasses. “If you don’t like it, don’t buy it. I’m not cavalier about that. It’s not ‘like it or lump it.’ I’ll make reasonable adjustments, and I’ll try hard to make you like it. I want you to be happy with the instrument.”
For professional musicians, who can be fanatic about the slightest differences in how they sound playing one fiddle or another,? the collaborative process Zygmuntowicz offers is key. That certainly was the case for violin soloist Dylana Jenson. Now 50 and living in Grand Rapids, Mich., Jenson was a child prodigy who once performed on The Merv Griffin Show. But her career slumped in the late 1980s after the instrument she had used for years, which was on loan to her, was sent back to its owner. After more than 13 years of trying out other instruments, Jenson was told by Yo-Yo Ma to contact Zygmuntowicz. In 1995, Zygmuntowicz made her an instrument? based on a model of the violin she’d once used. But it wasn’t right. Even after several adjustments, “it just wasn’t working for me as a solo instrument,” Jenson says. So she gave up on it.