There are very few names in the musical world that carry as much prestige and admiration as Stradivarius. It's often held up as the shining example of flawless musical craftsmanship and considered the pinnacle of violin design. All genuine Stradivarius instruments were made centuries ago and no one has been able to re-capture the same "lightning in a bottle" since , though many craftsmen have tried, leading to plenty of homages as well as a considerable number of forgeries.
An authentic Stradivarius is one that was handmade by Antonio Stradivari in his Italian workshop. Born in 1644, he was only 22 years old when word began to spread about the genius luthier in Cremona making the greatest violins in the world. That reputation only grew stronger over the years, and Stradivari devoted the rest of his life to the craft until he passed away in 1737. Throughout those decades, he worked hard to perfect every detail of his masterpieces, experimenting and innovating to guide the course of violin design for future generations.
Stradivari was certainly successful: his instruments are widely considered the "gold standard" and modern violin design is based on his work. Of course, there are still genuine Stradivarius violins in the world today. Of the over 1,000 instruments Stradivari built, about 650 have survived to become some of the most well-cared-for and valuable instruments on the planet. There are more than just violins; Stradivari also made cellos, violas, guitars, harps and other stringed instruments.
The purpose of any instrument is to make music, so it stands to reason that the most distinctive feature should be its sound. That's the case for Stradivari, who constantly experimented to improve his soundbox design. The beautiful craftsmanship of Stradivarius instruments is simply “icing on the cake.” Some have speculated that his exceptional skill may have come from training as a woodworker, but Stradivari's early years are a bit of a mystery and nobody knows for certain what led to the career for which he's known.
One thing that is certain, though, is that Stradivari's finest creations come from the "golden" period between 1700 and 1725. By this time, he had experimented enough to move on from the classic Amati style to his own revised designs, which he had refined to perfection. Two examples of violins built during this phase of Stradivari's career would be the 1715 Lipinski and 1716 Messiah, each of which is worth millions today. Instruments of this period have a sound quality that evades even the most precise scientists and luthiers who try to match it, but thankfully, their high value doesn't keep them under lock and key never to be heard again. In fact, Stradivarius violins need to be played regularly in order to keep them in good condition, so they are loaned to world-class violinists like Anastasiya Petryshak for performances. And some, such as Itzhak Perlman and David Garrett, are even lucky enough to call a Stradivarius their own.
Think you may have struck gold and found a genuine Stradivarius in your Grandpa's attic? Or simply interested in tracking down a Strad in the hopes of trying out a few bars? With the number of imitations out there, it can be tough to tell a real from a forgery. In many cases, only a trained appraiser could make the call, but there are a few things to look for if you're trying to determine whether a Stradivarius is the real deal.
The first, and most obvious, is the date on the label. Most Strads will be labeled "Antonius Stradivarius Cremonensis Faciebat Anno" followed by the year. If it's not between 1666 and 1737, then you're obviously looking at an homage - it may still be a fine violin in its own right, of course, but it's not the genuine work of Antonio Stradivari. There were many violins built during the 19th century as inexpensive alternatives to the real thing, and they're not trying to pull a fast one on you. They're simply acknowledging that the design is derived from Stradivari's creations.
Other differences come down to the tiniest of details in woodworking, varnish quality and composition, and similarly exacting factors. For these, it takes an expert eye with plenty of experience to spot the marks of authenticity, so if you're looking for advice on an instrument that's dated within Stradivari's career, your best bet is to bring it to a qualified artisan for appraisal.
There are many fine violins in the world today, but even after hundreds of years, many still consider Stradivarius violins to be the best. Unmatched in craftsmanship, Stradivari was masterful in his attention to detail: building with particular woods cut in particular ways under particular weather conditions, he probably took into consideration other factors that we aren't even aware of today. That would certainly explain why they've never been equalled.
If you are given the opportunity to play a genuine Stradivarius, whether it's a violin or any of Antonio Stradivari's other orchestral strings, it's one that you absolutely shouldn't pass up. Just be sure to handle with care: that may be a few million dollars' worth of instrument you're holding.