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master violin and viola case maker


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Dear Musicians,

It happens to me quite often: on a long-haul plane flight, at a dinner or a reception. In other words, any time I am sitting next to someone I don't know. The question sooner or later arises: So tell me, Dimitri, what do you do for a living? My answer is: I am a master violin case maker. And most people just stare at me blankly.

Of course, it's understandable. For the non-violinist, a "violin case" is a misshapen, black, felt-lined obbrobrium with a level of finish that gives the distinct impression of something assembled at gunpoint. No doubt, the thousands of such products that inundated the market especially from post-war Eastern Europe and China play a part in this stereotype. As just about everyone has a "Stradivarius" in the closet, most of them are housed in an affair as described above.

What isn’t really understood by many, is that like there are master violin makers and there are violin factories, the same goes for cases: there are master case makers and then there are case factories. And within this distinction lies an extremely important difference.

A master case maker (just like a master violin maker) is someone engaged in a pursuit that has become his very existence. For that reason, he goes that extra mile to make a case that really works, lasts, protects the instrument, etc.. He thinks about how to improve his cases on Sundays and while on vacation. His name goes on every one that goes out the door – and with it, a little part of his essence. Think of a sculptor, a writer, a painter who signs his works and you’ll get the idea.

A case factory, on the other hand, is simply an economic entity of which the sole reason for existing is to make a profit for the shareholders.

Getting back to the subject,  the problem is that the job description itself is simply too long. Four words! It's easier to be understood if someone replies summarily that he is a lawyer, a banker, an engineer, a gardener, a painter or a violinist. Even violin maker - two words - can be reduced to one (as is indeed, in most languages) as "luthier", which for those who don't know, derives from French and originally meant "lute-maker". 

I think that one reason why this job description is too long is that there are too few of us for the public to have coined a less unwieldy term. If there were hundreds of master violin case makers, the general public and the pundits would have come up with something, maybe like custodiaio (deriving from the Italian words for case and caretaker, which would be an improvement over the current six-word maestro costruttore di custodie per violini. If I lived in Germany I could probably get away with geigenetuisbaumeister (a French-German hybrid, as cases are called "étuis" in German), which lives up to the Teutonic reputation of multi-syllabics on steroids. But I don't live in Germany.    

No, the outlook on this nomenclature looks rather hopeless. You know what though? As Rhett Butler famously said, frankly I don’t give a damn. I’m doing what I like, I believe I am doing a service to the violin community, I manage to make a decent living, many people appreciate my work, I get intimate satisfaction from each step of progress I make, and I can reasonably expect that my name will live on after I've turned the light out in my workshop for the last time. All of this is that us master violin makers - like master violin makers - do it for in the end. And if I have to explain it over again at the next Rotary dinner, I will. 

As always, thank you for your attention, and feel free to comment!          

Dimitri Musafia, December 10, 2010


      “One cannot sleep on fame.” - Donatella Versace


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