Cymbals are important not only for drummers but also for musicologists. They are the favorites of idiophones in the family of percussive instruments. Why? Because they are some of the oldest and most common instruments. Cymbals came about during the process that started with the discovery of bronze alloys. Chinese, Turkish and Egyptian civilizations shaped the metalworking of brass and bronze. The scope of metalworking spans from objects used in daily life to war equipment. Cymbals were eventually used in religious and government ceremonies and wars among other membranophones and percussive instruments. They became an indispensable part of military music. The 17th century was an important period for the janissary band which was active between 14-19th centuries. Cymbals underwent a transformation during this time. Avedis Zildjian the First discovered his famous secret recipe in 1623 in Istanbul. The 400th anniversary of this legend will be celebrated in 2023.
According to Pars Tuğlacı, I. Kerope lived on the shores of the Black Sea, most probably in the state of Trabzon, in the beginning of the 17th century. He was a coppersmith who ended up moving to Istanbul. He started working as a cauldron master in the palace. He founded a workshop within the boundaries of the Topkapı Palace in 1618 with the permission of Mustafa the First. His son I.Avedis (b.1596) replaced him upon his death. Continuing to work within the walls of the palace, he crafted swords and shields for the janissary as well as bells for Armenian and Green churches and other metal castings. He was named “Zildjian” (son of the cymbal maker) by Sultan Osman the Second in 1622 and was gifted 80 gold coins. The workshop moved to Samatya district the next year in 1623. I. Avedis discovered a new bronze alloy made up of tin and copper in this workshop in Samatya and started to cast cymbals with it. He achieved great sounds in this alloy as well as resistance against breaking. This was how the secret formula came about. The secret of the formula lies in the ratio of the materials in the alloy. The production in its essence is seen as the mixing and working of the products, yet the final stage of transforming the metal into an instrument through a series of treatments is what makes this process special. The workshop came to the management of Ahkam following his father I. Avedis and grandfather I. Kerope around 1651. That’s how the tradition of the business being handed down from father to son started.
There isn’t much information available about the family in the next 200 years. There are recordings about Ahkam’s great grandsons II. Avedis, II. Kerope and Hoca Artin in the 1800s. With the increasing popularity of the cymbals in classical European music and military bands, II. Avedis chose to attend as a representative of the Ottoman Empire during the 1851 and 1862 London International Fairs. These fairs were commercial in nature and aimed towards the promotion of industrial production methods and products. The Ottoman Empire’s goal was to show off the productivity of its soils, the improvements in agriculture, industry and arts to Europe. II. Avedis achieved great success with the quality of his cymbals during these fairs. The definition of ‘Turkish Cymbals’ was written in history.
With the death of II. Avedis in 1865, II. Kerope became the head of the family business and founded the company “K. Zildjian & Cie”. He attended the World Fair in Paris in 1867 and received the ‘Zikr-i Cemil’ medal. The company produced about a thousand pairs of cymbals in a year and 80-100 of these remained in Istanbul while the rest was sold to overseas through a commissioner in Paris. Lead by Hoca Artin (with II. Kerope still as the head of the company), a petition placed with the ‘Meclis-i Vâlâ İradeleri’ department of the National Treasury in 1868 shows that this family of 70 people experienced consecutive fire tragedies, resulting in the loss of their capital, the inability to pay their debts and the ultimate inability to get the raw material needed for the company. They were offered to relocate the workshop to Paris, which they turned down. In reply to this petition, Sultan Abdülaziz commanded that the Zildjian family should receive any aid they needed and their debts were conditionally paid off in order to prevent them from moving abroad. In the following years, II. Kerope attended fairs in Vienna in 1873, Boston in 1883, Bologna in 1888 and Chicago in 1893 and received medals. His cymbals were superior to the ones produced in Europe in resonance, thickness and sturdiness. The workshop could produce 1300-1500 cymbals a year at the end of the 1800s.
According to Gazimihal, a brother of II. Kerope was called Karabet. It isn’t certain whether this is an alias of Hoca Artin or II. Avedis or an entirely different brother. However, it is said that Karabet took the family business over after II. Kerope’s death in 1910, followed by II. Kerope’s sons. Gabriel Zilçan wrote that two of II. Kerope’s 12 children, Diran (d.1921) and Levon continued the family business following their father’s death. The oldest son II. Haroutian was in line but he chose politics and law as his profession. That’s why his brother Aram joined Diran and Levon. On the other hand, a male son in the family should become the head of the business and that the rest can replace him only upon his death, but there have been exceptions to this tradition. It was written that Aram was involved in a assassination attempt on Sultan Abdülhamid the Second’s life in July 1905, resulting in him being exiled to Bucharest or that he fled there. He continued crafting cymbals there under the name “Zildjiaram” and founded a company called “A. Zildjian & Cie”. The oldest daughter of II. Kerope, Victoria, took over the responsibility of leading the workshop in Istanbul during this period. Aram stayed in Bucharest until 1926 and then returned to Istanbul.
There is another example of those who were left out of the inheritance chain in the beginning of the 20th century. Karekin was one of the relatives. He stole the secret formula and moved to Mexico City in 1907 to produce cymbals there. However, he died during an explosion in the workshop and the Latin American line came to an end before it began.
Aram’s brother’s son III. Avedis moved to Boston in the USA in 1908 and was producing sugar. He worked in the workshop in Istanbul in his youth. In the meanwhile, II.Kerope’s other daughter Akabi married Gabriel Dulgarian. She gave birth to Mikhail (1906-1977) Clementine and Kerope. Mikhail wanted to learn about cymbal making and went to Bucharest to see Aram for this reason. It is understood that Aram did not teach him the secret formula. Mikail then continued attending the singing department of the conservatoire upon returning to Istanbul and changed his last name to ‘Zilcan’ from Dulgarian after the passing of the last name laws.
Aram wrote a letter to his nephew III. Avedis in 1927, suggesting they continue the cymbal production in the USA. III. Avedis was not really interested and making cymbals was just a far-away thought for him. However, he noticed that the cymbals used by jazz bands, the popular music at the time in the States, and symphony orchestras were Zildjian brand. He accepted the offer after seeing the potential. Aram joined him and they set up a workshop in Massachusetts Norfolk Downs. Their first workshop was a garage filled with old cabs. They chose to be near the sea just like Istanbul, because they believe in the positive contribution of salt water in the production of metal goods. III. Avedis wrote that it took them a year to produce good cymbals in his memoirs. The obstacles they faced were not only in the application of the formula of the alloy but also mastering the processes of casting, cutting, hammering and lathing.
The garage was burnt down about 10 years later causing them to move. The new workshop was equipped with more modern tools. The cymbals were mostly still exported from Istanbul at that point. Therefore, the music industry had a hard time accepting cymbals that didn’t come from Turkey. Seeing this, III. Avedis toured the clubs and got in touch with the legendary drummers of the time such as Gene Krupa, Papa Jo Jones, Buddy Rich, Chick Webb, Big Sid Catlett and Ray Bauduc. He started to produce cymbals according to their specifications. Hi-hat cymbals were developed by Zildjian. Gene Krupa wanted thinner cymbals and this is how ‘paper thin’ spec came about. Nouns and adjectives such as ‘ride’, ‘bounce’ and ‘swish’ were shaped according to the ideas of these drummers. In the meanwhile, the 1929 economic recession was taking its toll on the music industry as well. Clubs where big bands played at were taxed and orchestras got smaller, causing the music and the equipment to undergo a transformation. New drumming styles emerged. The responsibility of keeping constant rhythm shifted from bass drums to cymbals. This caused the previously 14-inch rides to grow to 18, 20 and 22 inches in size.
The American branch made a deal with several companies producing drumming kits for a short while in the 30s and 40s in addition to producing cymbals with the Zildjian brand. They marketed lower quality, cheaply made goods under different brands. They released Zilco in Premier drums catalogue in 1937, Zenjian for Leedy and Ludwig in the 30s and Alejian for Slingerland in the 40s.
On the other hand, the Istanbul workshop was managed by Filor’s spouse whose last name was Yuzbashian while Aram was in Romania. There was a collaboration done with Fred Gretsch in 1926 for the distribution of the cymbals in the States. Different sources claim different people were involved in this collaboration. One source cites that it was done by Yuzbashian and Mikhail Zilcan while another claims Aram and Yako Toledo were responsible. In either case, Mikhail Zilcan became the head of the workshop after Aram moved to the USA. It was managed by Yako Toledo and Ehrenstein. The company was in a tight spot in the 1940s. One of the possible main reasons for this was the fact that the cymbals produced in the USA have improved highly in technical aspects and them dominating the market due to their position right in the middle of the action. In addition, the cymbals produced in Istanbul and exported to America were both heavy and did not achieve stability in both size and quality. The company approached bankruptcy. An article in the ‘Tasvir-i Efkâr’ newspaper published on the 3rd of June 1943 reads: “Lathe, machines, fully iron and wooden cauldrons, equipment for cymbal production and 17 marching band cymbals and miscellaneous band equipment seized from Vahan and Mikail Zilciyan’s company addressed Sancaktar Hayrettin Mahallesi, İnekçi street 45-47 no due to their inability to pay their debt to Samatya Room of Commerce.” It seems like Master Mikhail’s equipment was seized. Toledo’s son-in-law Salomon Covo most likely stepped in at this point and saved the company from bankruptcy. Covo became the owner and general manager of the company.
Avedis Zildjian company won a lawsuit in 1951 to become the sole owner of the company name “Zildjian” against those who came into the family through marriage and produced cymbals. However, the Istanbul workshop continued to produce cymbals with the “K. Zildjian” brand for many years. They produce 400-500 cymbals per month until the 1970s. The workshop in Istanbul continued to function until the death of Mikhail Zilcan.
Just like A. Zildjian cymbals and the innovations they brought to the world of jazz in America in the 30s, the old K. Zildjians seems to have received a blessing in the 50s. The old K’s became popular once again with their dark, textured tones when new generation drummers such as Elvin Jones, Tony Williams, Art Blakey, Philly Jo Jones, Jimmy Cobb, Chico Hamilton and Mel Lewis took an interest. These K’s were named after II. Kerope. Therefore, they were produced at the end of the 19th century, beginning of the 20th century. They are valued as rare collection pieces today.
The American branch of Zildjian became a big factory in the years that followed. They opened a company in Canada in 1968 called Azco. Their aim was creating a new structure to export to the nations of the Commonwealth as they finished their products in this country. Mikhail Zilcan’s brothers Kerope Zilçan and his son Gabriel (Gabe) started working at Azco after the Istanbul company closed in 1977. They wanted to produce cymbals similar to the old K’s. III. Avedis’s sons Armand and Robert took over the company after their father’s death. Robert took over the Canada branch and changed the name from Azco to Sabian in 1981. Sabian is a made-up name which brings together the names of Robert’s children: Sally, Billy and Andy. The American branch is managed by Arman’s daughters Craigie and Debbie since 1999.
Zildjian is undoubtedly a legend in the world of cymbals. This is an adventure that spans from Anatolia to Istanbul, from Istanbul to the USA and Canada. The Zildjian family will celebrate the 400th anniversary of their legacy in 2023.