Crash Clash: The Shared History of Zildjian and Sabian Cymbals

Not only are cymbals an integral and nuanced component of any serious drummer’s rig, they are also one of the oldest instruments in human history, found buried within the tombs of the pharaohs. The story of cymbals, however, is far more relevant to today than old discs of metal from thousands of years ago. One of the greatest family sagas in music history lies at the entwined heart of two of today’s biggest cymbal manufacturers, Zildjian and Sabian.

The history of Sabian cannot be told without the history of Zildjian. Through 14 generations of cymbal makers, the still family-owned Zildjian cymbals traces its origins back to 1618. This clocks the company in at just under 400 years, making it one of the oldest operations on earth still in existence. The legend stands that the creator of the Zildjian name, Avedis, was an alchemist searching for the recipe for gold when he happened across a metal mixture and lathing process that gave musical qualities to the metal while remaining durable. When his cymbals gained traction at military and royal ceremonies, the Sultan Osman II granted Avedis the title Zildjian, a combination of the Turkish words zil (“cymbal”), dji (“maker”), and -ian (“son of”). From that point on, Zildjian spent centuries distinguishing itself as an authority on cymbals.

19" Avedis Zildjian Ride, 1950's

Fast forward 300 years and 10 generations of Zildjians to the births of the architects of modern Zildjian and Sabian: Armand Zildjian in 1921 (whose 21” namesake ride this author plays) and Robert Zildjian in 1923. Their father, Avedis III, emigrated from Turkey to America in 1908, leaving the Zildjian company to his cousins in Istanbul. Traditionally, the first-born male of a Zildjian generation is heir to the manufacturing secrets and operations, and because Avedis III’s father allowed the line to pass to his brother, didn’t consider himself eligible. However, in 1927, Avedis III’s uncle Haram wrote him a letter from Turkey asking him to return and assume control of the business after bungled management by his sons and relatives. Avedis III managed to convince his uncle to come to Boston where he lived, and in 1929, just months before the Great Depression, Avedis Zildjian Co. was created in Quincy, Massachusetts.

The next 40 years saw a number of struggles for the fledgling American standard. Due to Aram Zildjian (Avedis III’s brother) signing over distribution and namesake rights of the Zildjian brand to the Fred Gretsch Co., Avedis Zildjian Co. fought for decades in order to carve out a niche in the American market. The Avedis Zildjian brand was able to remain afloat and ahead of the curve because of its close relationship with its artists, an industry standard today pioneered by the company over half a century ago. Finally, in 1968, the Zildjian brothers managed to convince their relative still operating in Turkey to sell K. Zildjian to the family and also struck a deal with Gretsch for the Zildjian trademark distribution rights.

20" Sabian Flat Bell Ride, early 1980s

This development led to the creation of a new factory for the creation of Zilco cymbals (a more cost-effective type of cymbal made by Zildjian) in 1968 in the town of Meductic, New Brunswick, Canada. While initially created and used for these more cost-effective cymbals, the demand for Zildjian eventually swept the economic need for Zilcos and the Meductic factory began producing Zildjian cymbals in the early 70’s. Meductic was originally scouted and decided upon as the factory spot by Robert Zildjian, who, at the mention of a WWII friend, went to Meductic to work through his PTSD and after-effects of the war. Meductic would again be a place of refuge for the Sabian founder before the decade was over.

In 1979, Avedis III passed away, leaving an acrid legal battlefield between his sons for control of the Zildjian company. While Armand was the elder son and considered the rightful heir to control, Robert Zildjian felt slighted. After 2 years in court, Armand retained the Zildjian factory in Quincy, and Robert inherited the factory in Meductic where he founded Sabian. Not much has come to light over the feud between the 2 brothers in the time between their father’s death and the creation of Sabian cymbals in 1980. Needless to say, ties were severed and 2 of the behemoths of the cymbal industry went their separate ways.

In the past 30 plus years, both companies have established reputations as forerunners in cymbal-making and are synonymous with the word “cymbal.” Armand died in 2002, with his brother following him just last year. Both companies are still headed by heirs to the Zildjian name and still compete for the title of largest cymbal-maker in the world. Regardless of where you side on this family divide, the story of the Zildjian lineage is still one of the oldest and most fascinating (and sadly, least known), in all of music.

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