Antonio Stradivari, one of the greatest craftsmen the world has known, would shudder if he were to read what follows. It concerns a cello he made three centuries ago, in 1701, that today some musicians consider the best in the world. It is named after one of its various owners, Adrien-François Servais, and for the past 20 years has been kept in the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History in Washington. Occasionally a musician of renown is allowed to play the Servais: in 1992 Dutchman Anner Bylsma made a beautiful recording of Bach's six solo suites, which were composed about 20 years after Stradivari put the finishing touches to the instrument.
Apart from its spine-chilling sound, the Servais has had a spine-chilling history between its last caress at the hands of the Italian master in Cremona and its arrival at the U.S. museum in 1981, via a bequest. It is a tale that helps to draw the line distinguishing craftsmanship from mass production. Machines give us precision, volume, economy; they have democratized the making of things by putting quality goods within the reach of more than just the rich. But articles whose construction demands the human hand, eye, ear and, yes heart, rarely come off a production line.
The Servais exemplifies this intangible value we call individuality. Stradivari's cello found its way into the possession of the Russian court. There Servais, a young Belgian musician, contrived to play it before Czar Nicholas I. The Princess Yusupova, the story goes, had fallen for Servais in a big way and lent him the Stradivarius. The Czar praised the performance, and the Belgian modestly replied that it was surely due to the loan of the great cello. Whereupon the enamored princess exclaimed: "Oh, it wasn't a loan, it was a gift!" The Czar's court was said to be distinctly underwhelmed by this gesture, but Servais allegedly after threatening to make public some intimate letters to him from the princesswas allowed to leave with his prize.
But almost at once, Servais lost it. While he was crossing the Russian steppes by night, the cello fell off a sled. The horrified traveler immediately retraced his route. And there in the snow he found the instrument intact, though only just. During the night, wolves had gnawed at the leather straps keeping shut its case, but they had not managed to open it. Roll over Stradivari!
Nearly three centuries after his cello came in from the cold, individual touch and mass production are no longer at the standoff that began with the Industrial Revolution. Across Europe there has been a steady regeneration of craftsmanship, accompanied by an acceptance that in-with-the-new doesn't always have to mean out-with-the-old; good work and modern technology are not mutually exclusive.
This renaissance comes at an interesting time. The forces of globalization, standardization and mass production are widely decried as threats to such hand-crafted quality. Industrialized agriculture long ago forced tasty, locally grown food products out of most supermarkets, and small farmers have only recently begun to discover new, niche markets. Franchised retailers and mega-discounters are supplanting friendly corner shops and personalized service. Manufacturers of clothing, motor cars and other consumer products are merging into giant, cross-border enterprises to take advantage of economies of scale and to bear the ever-growing expenses of marketing and technology. Yet perhaps because of these forces, quality is today valued more than ever. Against the blandness of mass-market products, hand-made goods stand out as beacons of individuality and soul. And Europe, for centuries the capital of craft and care, is the center of this new appreciation for excellence. As the world comes to re-value things produced the old, careful way, Europe is still making them. Today more than ever, Europe is the capital of quality.
The cello again provides an example, or rather the cello case. It is not that someone has suddenly come up with a way to make them wolf-proof, but one of the array of stories that follow in this European Journey special report is about a man who makes cases no Russian wolf would want to chew. Igor Pantelic, part Croat, part Dutch, was using glass fiber to repair speedboats when a musician friend suggested the material would be good to encase his cello: strong, light and capable of being molded to the peculiar shape of each instrument. Today, Pantelic numbers among his clients Yo-Yo Ma and Anner Bylsma, he of Servais fame. Pantelic is modest, saying his work "is just plastic and stinking chemicals." But one aspect of what he does would have applied equally to Stradivari: "I have no one between me and the customer...It's like coming to the tailor: your cello is getting its own suit."
This "part inventor, part craftsman," as Pantelic describes himself, is typical of those who follow in this report, for which a score of correspondents and another dozen photographers fanned out across Europe to discover how the guildhall has met high-tech. At Waterford Crystal in Ireland, for example, each piece of glassware still passes through up to 40 pairs of hands, and master cutter Jim O'Shea still keeps about 400 designs in his head. But today, the chance of a flawed piece of glassware leaving Waterford is less likely than ever: a modern quality-control system flags any defect on computer screens.
Apart from making old skills more efficient, what has most rekindled craftsmanship across Europe is the growing market for something distinctive in a world of sameness. It is this, together with newfound respect for those who made great works without great machines, that has Thom Price, a 31-year-old American, working in a squero, a traditional Venetian gondola workshop. Or that finds Australian enologist David Baverstock producing award-winning wines from old grape varieties found only in Portugal.
That the European market is, well, turning the clock back, is further illustrated by a training school high in the Swiss Jura. Between 1970 and 1987 the Swiss watch industry, devastated by digital timekeeping, shed two-thirds of its workforce. But at this school, students spend two years learning what made the Swiss famous: mechanical watchmaking. "By the end they will have mastered the history of watchmaking from the 15th century to the present day," says one of the teachers. "Why try to compete with the Japanese when our specialty is high-quality mechanical watchmaking?" If further proof of the renewed respect and market for craftsmanship were needed, the school's next intake includes a Japanese student.
In another of the stories that follow, a man with a very English name, Quentin English, explains the thrill of what used to be personal attention, but is now customer relations. His particular vice is the Morgan, the English sports car that is still made with a wooden body. He has owned three Morgans. Only 12 are made each week by the company's 150 workers at its factory in Malvern Link, Worcestershire. He is especially pleased that when he orders a new one, "It goes through the factory with my name on the ticket."
This enthusiasm is motivating Europe's new generation of craftsmen and women to continue learning and adapting centuries-old skills. So that maybe 300 years from now what they make with hands and heart may, like the Servais cello, still be a thing of beauty. And in perfect working order.