"Alchemy" Was the Secret to Making Stradivarius Violins, Study Says

Richard A. Lovett
for National Geographic News
November 29, 2006

Chemical tricks were the key to creating the unparalelled tones of famed 17th- and 18th-century Italian violins, a new study says.

Texas chemist and violinmaker Joseph Nagyvary collected tiny wood shavings from violins made by Antonio Stradivari and Guaneri del Gesu and submitted the material for new chemical analyses.

"We sought to answer the centuries-old question of whether Stradivari and Guaneri used chemical tricks," said Nagyvary, who retired three years ago from Texas A&M University in College Station.

For example, experts have wondered, "did they boil their wood in a way that would alter the acoustical properties and make the sound more beautiful?"

The test results, reported in tomorrow's issue of the journal Nature, suggest that the wood used to make the priceless violins was "dramatically different" chemically from wood used in both modern instruments and instruments from the same time period made in England and France.

"So the answer is yes, They had a magic potion," Nagyvary said.

Secret Formula

The study applied two high-powered analytical tests—carbon-13 nuclear magnetic resonance and infrared spectroscopy—to a mere 80 milligrams (0.003 ounce) of wood from three of the famous instruments.

The wood shavings were collected from violin repair shops over the course of a quarter century (related photo: violin store in Cremona, Italy, home of the Stradivarius).

"These samples are hard to get," Nagyvary said. "You cannot approach Itzhak Perlman and ask him to give you a chunk of his Stradivarius for analysis."

Nagyvary hopes his results will allow modern violinmakers to rediscover the Italians' secrets.

"We have already made several violins with chemical treatments Stradivari could have used, and the results are outstanding," he said.

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