(This article appeared first in the "Thurman Guitar & Violin Repair Newsletter" Spring 1991, Vol. 6 No. 1, and is based on a taped interview held with him in his NYC apartment. He was born in Armenia Aug 18, 1914 (or 1911), and died in New York on Oct. 21, 1999. His son, John Papazian, has several of his father's instruments. He can be reached at the same address which is given at the end of the article.)
Manouk Papazian - Luthier Extraordinaire!
Retired since October of 1981 and now 80 years of age,* Armenia-born luthier Manouk Papazian still lives in New York. Though sharp of eye and intellect, his hands have a rare medical condition that limits their usage. Now Papazian has time to contemplate some of his fine work, which he retains, and to reflect on the many curious and sometimes treacherous turns in his life's long road.
His father, an excellent furniture maker, taught Manouk and his brothers to use all the basic tools by age twelve. They had fled to Salonika in Greece with other Armenian refugees from Smyrna, Turkey where there had been pogroms. In Salonika the young Manouk was recognized for his artistic abilities by the local Armenian rug factory, the sponsors of his school. In desperate need of a rug designer they saw promise in Manouk's ability to draw perfect copies from portraits of famous musicians. Thus half his last year in elementary school was spent designing for a factory which exported exclusively to America. Although to this day these valuable rugs decorate homes in the United States, the business eventually succumbed to the worldwide depression of 1929.
Back in school full time, he began to excel, winning prizes in chemistry, physics and mathematics. He also studied violin at the Salonika conservatory but the outbreak of World War II required his services in the family furniture business guided by his brother, Meflin. By 1934 he had earned a diploma with honors from the American Junior College with a tough curriculum requiring the study of four languages: Greek, Armenian, French and English.
Even in the safety of Greece, with or without citizenship, opportunity was always limited for Armenians. In 1949 the stateless Papazian immigrated to Argentina which needed skilled workers. Soon he found work making castanets and violin bows as there was little foreign exchange to purchase these imports. The Papazian guitar making career commenced when a German émigré music wholesaler asked if he could make guitars. After examining an instrument and feeling the bracing through the soundhole Papazian agreed, eventually producing 100 or more. Acquisition of materials was a major problem. Even with Brazil adjacent it was forbidden to import wood for bows or guitars...Argentinian woods were to be used. Alaskan Sitka spruce for soundboards was, however, obtained from a business contact in the aircraft industry. Contrasting these difficulties in Argentina with business in the States Papazian jokes, "Here you can get anything, as they say, even bull's milk, if you really want it!"
While visiting his brother in 1956, by then a sculptor living in Manhattan,* he enrolled in a U.S. government program sponsoring the immigration of skilled workers; accepted, he did not return to Argentina. He became a naturalized citizen in 1983.
Commencing in 1956 at a rate of approximately 30 instruments yearly he constructed his opus of 900 guitars, 40 renaissance lutes, numerous vihuelas, violins and three cellos at a shop located in Manhattan at 24 West 30th Street. He conducted all sales and repair from this location to avoid distribution through stores because: "Let's face it, a store takes the meat and leaves you the bone."
During the humid summer months he machined parts until cooler seasons provided a stable, dry atmosphere for assembly. By 1960 his ideas and patterns for guitar making were finalized so changes were few thereafter. Slightly larger and more square in the shoulders than a traditional Spanish instrument, his guitars are easy to play and exude an elegant simplicity of restrained, refined design. Initially he attempted some lesser priced models with mahogany backs and sides but soon decided the cost advantage was in materials only: a savings of about $50. Therefore the majority of the guitars bear high quality Brazilian rosewood with European spruce soundboards. These materials were obtained from the largest German musical woods supplier which had absorbed competitors located in Rumania and Switzerland. It wasn't certain that the spruce was German but it was certainly a hard European variety, unlike Sitka which Papazian finds soft, yielding a smaller sound. The same goes for another domestic variety, the now-popular Engleman spruce, which he rejected after using it in a violin. "If you can make a violin you can make any instrument. It is the most difficult," he declares.
Papazian views instrument making as "a blend of art and science," in which "the wood is God." Time after time he pleaded with his supplier to send him only the best woods regardless of price. Still, upon receiving as many as 400 soundboards at a time there could be as few as 15% considered ideal. The rest would have to be adjusted somewhat for good results. The wood must be hard and strong, but also lightweight.
In addition to a violin varnish finish applied without sizing, another important feature of Papazian guitars is original inlaid marquetry around the soundhole and in the bindings. He composed the rosettes with maple veneers dyed in aniline tints; most have his name inlaid in them as a charming bit of fancy. He believes the small decorative features, though not decisive in terms of sound, nonetheless impart an extra dimension of appreciation and pleasure to the player.
One temptation for luthiers is making their instruments too delicate: "What these people don't realize is that when they make an instrument thin it sounds good here but not over there. They don't project." To illustrate this point he summons his knowledge of the violin world; he explains that most active concert violinists now prefer Guarnerius del Gésu over Stradivarius. Stradivari carved bis violins with slimmer thicknesses, giving them a nasal tone compared to the heftier Guarnerii which sound uniformly more robust, despite their great age.
Although his guitars were assembled with the Spanish method of integrating the neck into the body, Papazian says he did so mainly to avoid criticism. "They are right!" Papazian says of luthiers who have abandoned the traditional method. He mentions Fleta as exemplary of a celebrated instrument which has not suffered for the dovetailed neck.
Would he pursue this career again? Probably not. As an artist he loved playing the violin but "As the saying goes, you cannot serve two masters at the same time." This is his assessment of the displacement and harsh economics which elevated work over playing. Professionally, a career in chemistry, physics or architecture would have suited him better. Marveling at the educational opportunities in the United States he says his son is more interested in computers than music.
Since reaching our shores Manouk Papazian has made a good life and reputation for himself. Fortunate players like Jeffrey Van, John Holmquist and Bob Sullivan are fully aware of the unique qualities of the Papazian sound. Luthiery and the guitar world-at-large have benefited immeasurably from the clear vision and focused energies of a cultured and intelligent craftsman like Manouk Papazian.
If you are in New York and would like to inquire about purchasing one of his remaining instruments call or write to:
John Papazian (JPAPAZIAN@NYC.RR.COM)
522 E. 20th St. Apt. 5B
New York NY 10009
* Papazian tells an interesting story about his age. His documents list his birth in 1914 which would make him 77. When his family arrived in Greece from Turkey in 1922 the medical board, taking note of his "baby face," decided to give him an extra three years deferral from military service. Thus he was actually born August 18, 1911.
*John Hovanes Papazian (1900-1973) started sculpting at the age of two. In New York he taught at Cooper Union and the Art League for 40 years. During his long and fruitful career he received numerous prizes, among which were a Guggenheim Fellowship and the Eugene Mager Award) for portrait sculpture. He exhibited at the 1939 World's Fair and was respected and revered by his colleagues.
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