Competition Strikes an Expensive Chord

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The story of low-cost manufacturing heading to China from the West is an old one (and still a current one), but it is often told with reference to traditional manufacturing goods that benefit from China’s inexhaustible supplies of cheap labour. Ancient European skills and high-end violins do not usually get a mention, but the Telegraph carries a report from Cremona in Italy, home of the famed violin maker Antonio Stradivari.

While Chinese producers in places like Xiqiao can now produce a violin package (with bow and case) for just £13 (US$25), the inevitable competition (the town now has 40-odd violin companies), and price pressure, is resulting in a move up-market (another common theme these days) and into competition with the traditional makers of Cremona – whose violins can cost as much as £14,000 (US$26,980) a piece.

The mass market is already assured for the Chinese, and the report notes one of the largest companies in Xiqiao, Taixing Fengling Musical Instrument Company, made some 300,000 string instruments last year. But on the other end of the scale it is also noted that skilled Chinese artisans are making waves at the top of the market.

    “Last year, Zhu Ming-Jiang from Beijing won the gold medal at the Violin Society of America awards…The silver also went to a Chinese contestant, and four of the 12 competitors given certificates of merit were Chinese. Chinese luthiers [stringed instrument makers] have dominated the event since 2004.”

So how can the Italians, with all their heritage, compete? They plan to move to even higher ground – but it sounds like a hard task. One of their number, master violin maker Stefano Conia says:

    “We already knew that we cannot compete on price. We must compete on quality…There are good violin makers in China, who we taught at the school in Cremona. But when they leave Italy, they lose a bit of the Italian taste. The varnish, the sound, the wood is all particular to this city.”

They are also planning to protect themselves from the intellectual property abuses (yes, fake “Cremona” violins have been spotted on Ebay) that can be found around just about any valuable brand with the introduction of instrument “passports” and detailed online photos of individual items.

The experience here is interesting, not least as craftsmanship is not something that can be easily copied or quickly outsourced. It may take the Chinese producers time to outclass their teachers in Italy, but the gauntlet seems to have been thrown down.

Whether it be instruments, fashion design (remember Jefen?), R&D, or sectors across the board, China is slowly (and sometimes quickly) moving up the value chain. The emergence in China of high-end products, and world-class brands, is a story that many people – not just those in Cremona – would be wise to keep an eye on.

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