Robert (Bob) Zildjian was the descendant of 10 generations of Armenian cymbal makers. His father Avedis Zildjian emigrated to Boston from Turkey in the early 1900's. In 1928, his great-uncle Aram also came to Boston, bringing with him the family process and trade secrets in metalworking and cymbal-making. Together, they set up the Avedis Zildjian Company, where they began manufacturing cymbals for the rest of the world.
But the story is not quite so simple as that — it never really is. To know Bob Zildjian, it is important to understand the centuries-long journey taken by his family from the Ottoman Empire to New Brunswick, Canada. The history of the Ottoman Empire was marked by intense political upheaval – among other reasons, this is why precise dates and facts concerning the Zildjian family succession are not always clear. Records of birthdates and deaths, when kept at all, were stored in churches, which in many cases were burned to the ground.
But this much we know. For generations, the ancient family secret of cymbal-making passed from father to eldest son. However, at the turn of the twentieth century Bob’s grandfather Haroutian Zildjian rejected tradition by choosing to become the Attorney-General of Constantinople. And so his eldest son Avedis — Bob’s father — decided to seek opportunity in the land of America. Born December 6, 1888, Avedis had apprenticed in cymbal-making as a boy, but the business held little interest for him. And given his father’s decision, it seemed highly unlikely that the succession would ever pass to him, so he pursued other interests.
“Like so many young Armenians of the time,” Bob would later point out, “my father didn’t want to go into the army. The political climate in Turkey had always been hostile to Armenians, so when he got a chance to chaperone a rich Armenian family’s son to American in 1908, he jumped at the opportunity.”
Eventually Avedis Zildjian settled in the Boston area, set up a successful candy business, and married Alice Goodale, a descendant of solid Yankee stock. Alice bore him two sons, Armand, and then Bob, who loved to point out proudly he was born on July 14, Bastille Day, in 1923. In 1927, Avedis was surprised to receive a letter from his Uncle Aram announcing that the time had come to return to his homeland to claim his birthright. After much thought and consultation with Alice, Avedis wrote back to inform his uncle of the potential for a tremendous market in cymbals in the USA, and that Aram should instead come to Boston. Aram agreed, and for the first time, traditional Turkish cymbal making came to the new world under the name of A. Zildjian. For the next five decades, K. Zildjian in Istanbul and A. Zildjian in Boston would serve musicians around the globe both competitively and cooperatively.
As his father’s company grew, so did Bob, and it wasn`t long before he began working as a sweeper at the Zildjian Company during the summer. “My father paid me $2 a week, but he put $1.50 into a savings account in my name and only gave me fifty cents. But that wasn’t enough for me, and so I quit.” said Zildjian in an early interview. Demonstrating a head for business even at this young age, Bob went out and got a paper route that paid four times what he was making working for his father, keeping it all for himself. Though he may have avoided it, Bob couldn’t stay away from the cymbal business for long — it was in his blood.
At the age of 14 Bob, along with his older brother Armand, returned to apprentice at his father’s company and learned the secret manufacturing process. For a time, the two brothers got along very well. “We were under one despot — and that despot was my father”, Bob would claim later. Working under the heavy hand of their father served to unite the two brothers, but it would not always be this way.
Then along came the Second World War, and the impact it had on the production of cymbals was drastic. Copper and tin, essential to the cymbal making process, were also prime ingredients in the manufacture of shells and bullet casings. As a result, metal rationing almost resulted in the closing of the still fledgling A. Zildjian Company. Ironically, the only thing that kept them going was serving the military. They would provide cymbals for many Army, Navy and Marine bands.