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Luthier’s Love Affair with Violins

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Luthier’s Love Affair with Violins

Jón Marinó. Photo: Dagmar Trodler

Luthier Jón Marinó Jónsson does his job with a passion, and that’s what his customers highly appreciate.

Always having wanted to create things out of wood, he became a carpenter, got a master’s degree and even in 1993, when an economic crisis hit Iceland and he had to work for the US army, he held onto his dream.

In 2000, he graduated from a three-year program at the prestigious Lincoln College for violin makers in Newark-on-Trent and started fixing and making instruments in his garage, besides working as a carpenter. Demand increased, and today, Jón is one of two luthiers in Iceland, and the only one entirely dedicated to the domestic market, offering stringed instruments and classical guitars. This, however, without any sophisticated marketing. The workshop he shares with guitar maker Gunnar Örn Sigurðsson at Brautarholt 22, Reykjavík, definitely has style, with customers ranging from the Icelandic Symphony’s musicians to students and band members who bring their instruments in for repair.

Jón Marinó considers himself a craftsman. “I make violins,” he says with a smile, “it’s others who make the music. Also, a violin sounds different with different players.”

He listens to the wood; he is able read it like a book. A luthier spends a lot of time knocking on wood before and while he works with it. “It’s the wood’s thickness, its density and softness that creates the sound. I never know beforehand how the violin will be. Therefore, violin and bow must find their owners after completion. It’s like finding a spouse. Most musicians own a violin for life.”

His eyes begin to shine when he says this, and you can’t but believe him when he says he looks forward to going to his shop every morning.

“This is what I really want to do: making violins. Everything vibrates: the wood, the strings, the musician’s body. They all must harmonize with one another. You actually have a love affair with a violin. What kind of magic is that?” He still is enthusiastic about stringing a finished instrument or experiencing how the sound of the wood changes with further processing.

Violin making is an amazing craft. It’s time-consuming, manual work, where thousands of chips are planed from a plain wooden panel, slowly shaping it into an ethereal, thin cavity. “One false move and everything is lost,” he says, placing three small wood chisels on the table. “More than these is not really needed.” Well, a few more, and lots of experience.

Time takes care of the rest. Old violins, he says, contain history and music in their wood. Time has balanced out the wood, and made it kind of wise, the music of many hands created the instrument’s individual vibration. He mentions a Stradivarius that he once received for repair. “It contained a lot of music, and it was so fine that it trembled just with my voice.”

A new violin has to gather this experience. It needs a period of one to two years just to open. Jón Marinó’s customers are often young musicians who invest in their first violin. “A big decision. This is like starting a family; you leave the first marks on the instrument and shape it.”

But, frankly, Jón Marinó is also an artist who has transformed ironing boards into string instruments for Icelandic visual artists, and who only works on his violins when in a good mood. Before starting a new project, he thinks it carefully through, and he still finds it difficult to put a finished violin up for sale. “They’re like my children,” he admits, “I’m not much of a businessman.”

It takes up to four months for a violin to be ready for sale, even longer for a cello. Since the schedule for repairs and restorations is full, he rarely makes more than four or five instruments a year.

Jón’s instruments received highest scores for their sound at the Triennale of Cremona, an international violin making competition, a fact that Jón Marinó first reveals at the end of our conversation. In love affairs, scores should not play a role, anyway.

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