A Rising Star of Italian Violin Making Is a 32-Year-Old From South Korea

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


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

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

As a teenager, she decided she would become a violin maker. Eventually, a journey with twists and turns took her to Cremona in northern Italy — a famed hub for violin makers, including masters like Antonio Stradivari, since the 16th century. There, An, a rising star in the violin-making world with international awards under her belt, runs her own workshop.

Set on a quiet cobblestone street, An’s studio is bathed in natural light and filled with books and piles of wood chunks that must air dry for five to 10 years before becoming instruments or risk warping. She shares the two-room studio with her husband, Wangsoo Han, who’s also a violin maker.

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 down for leverage, she scraped the wood with a gouge, removing layers, her hands steady and firm. She was forming a curving neck called a “scroll,” one of the later steps of making a violin or cello. On this day, the violin maker was immersed on a commission for a cello, which shares a similar crafting process.

Violins like An’s, made in the tradition of Stradivari and Giuseppe Guarneri, require about two months of work and sell for about 16,000 to 17,000 euros, or $17,500 to $18,500. “I can make a violin in three weeks, but I don’t want to,” An said. “This object is very precious to the person purchasing 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 that 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, distraught about her moving so far away to pursue an uncertain career path, 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 too excited.”

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

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

Around the studio, small pots of pigment, for varnishing, sat on shelves and tables alongside jars of powders — ground glass and minerals — for polishing. On a wall were dozens of knives, chisels and saws. Also present: dentist’s tools to scratch the instrument for a more antique look.

An is the youngest member of a consortium in Cremona dedicated to upholding violin-making traditions. She is so immersed in the Cremonese method of violin making that, at the suggestion of a mentor, she created an artist’s name, Anna Arietti, to better fit in with Italian culture.

An important moment is when luthiers place their label inside the instrument, called a “baptism.” To make her label, An stamps her ink signature onto a small piece of paper — a browned page from a secondhand book, giving the impression of age. Then, using a traditional homemade mixture of melted bovine skin and rabbit skin as a long-lasting adhesive, she glues the label inside one half of the instrument. She also burns her signature into the instrument with a tiny heated brand.

Afterward, the two halves are sealed together, completing the main body of the instrument. Her Italian artist’s name remains inside, intact as long as the violin is.

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



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