When it came time for Aram Zildjian to pass on his family’s 300-year-old secret for making superior cymbals, he looked to Massachusetts’ Armenian community.
Since the Zildjians started their business in 1623, family tradition required Aram to tell his oldest male heir just how to make the cymbals with the unique purity of tone. That relative, Avedis Zildjian, had immigrated to Greater Boston, a haven for Armenians persecuted by the Ottoman Empire.
Cymbals were long used in Greek and Armenian religious ceremonies and by Ottoman military bands. On March 23, 1618, Sultan Mustafa I authorized an immigrant named Avedis to make cymbals.
Avedis, a metalworker, had fled the wars in Eastern Anatolia for the Ottoman Empire, which tolerated Armenians. He dabbled in alchemy at night, and one night he melted copper, tin and a mystery alloy. When it hardened, it made a sound that would make Avedis rich.
The Sultan gave Avedis 80 gold pieces, a contract with the Ottoman Army and a name: Zildjian, meaning “son of cymbal maker.”
Avedis Zildjian then left the sultan’s palace in 1623 to set up a cymbal factory in Constantinople. The family for generations kept the formula for making the cymbals a secret.
Starting in the late 17th century, European composers began using cymbals in opera, inspired by the sound of the Ottoman martial bands. Composer Richard Wagner once said, “That is the real music.”
Avedis Zildjian’s descendant, also Avedis Zildjian, realized the potential for his company and brought his cymbals to European trade shows. European composers were said to specify that only Zildjian cymbals were to be used in opera productions.
By the late 19th century, the Ottomans were growing less tolerant of the Armenians in their midst. The Armenians began to flee and to revolt. In 1880, the first Armenians came to Massachusetts.
Ottoman persecution then culminated in the Armenian massacre of 1915. Aram Zildjean joined a plot to kill the Sultan with a homemade bomb. The plot failed when the bomb exploded too early and evidence pointed to Aram and his co-conspirators. So he fled Turkey and moved to Bucharest. But then he returned to Constantinople in 1926.
From there, Aram wrote to his nephew Avedis in Boston, where he had opened a candy store.
Many survivors of Ottoman oppression landed in Boston and Watertown, Mass. Today the commonwealth is home to as many as 70,000 people who claim Armenian descent. It commemorates the Armenian massacre to this day on April 24. Only California claims more Armenians (which include the Kardashians).
Around 1928, Aram Zildjian and his nephews, Avedis and Puzant, opened a cymbal factory in Quincy.
Zildjean Designs New Cymbals
Avedis then passed the company on to his eldest son Armand. The Jazz Age was well underway, and together they worked with jazz drummers like Chick Webb and Gene Krupa to adapt cymbals for drum sets. They did it by making them thinner.
Then Armand’s younger brother Robert decided to move to Canada and start his own cymbal company, which he called Sabian after his children Sally (Sa), Billy (bi) and Andy (an).
Life Magazine in 1944 reported that cymbals satisfying symphonic and operatic requirements are difficult to find. “Nobody today manufactures the cymbals but a single family of Armenians whose purity of tone is unlike any cymbal ever made,” the magazine concluded.
Life also reported the New York Philharmonic had to hire a new cymbal player because he owned cymbals and the orchestra’s had gone missing.
More recently the company collaborated with Frank Epstein of the Boston Symphony Orchestra to design orchestral cymbals, lighter and thinner than those used by rock and roll bands.
To see a demonstration of Zildjian orchestral cymbals, click here.
In 2010, Avedis Zildjian Company merged with Vic Firth, Inc., a company founded by a BSO percussionist who started making his own drumsticks.
Image: Avedis Zildjian in Quincy, By Avedis Zildjian Company http://www.zildjian.com, PD-US, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16960807. Mustafa I By Unknown painter – https://islamansiklopedisi.org.tr/mustafa-i, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=97553913. This story last updated in 2023.