This Week in Armenian History

Death of Robert Zildjian (March 28, 2013)

Robert Zildjian became the founder of Sabian Cymbals, the second-largest manufacturer of cymbals in the world, when he was almost sixty-years-old. 

Avedis Zildjian III, who had left Turkey for the United States in 1909, in 1927 received a letter from his uncle Aram Zildjian, informing him that he would become heir to the more than 300-year-old family business of the Zildjians, cymbals manufacturing, that had turned them unrivaled. 

In 1928 Avedis, his brother Puzant, and his uncle Aram began manufacturing cymbals in Quincy, Massachusetts, and the Avedis Zildjian Co. was formed the following year. Avedis’ son Robert, born in Boston on July 14, 1923, became an apprentice at the factory when he was fourteen. 

During World War II, Robert Zildjian served as an Army infantryman in Europe and upon his return earned a degree from Dartmouth College. Returning to the Zildjian Company, he concentrated on building sales in Europe and often traveled with his wife, Willi, whom he married in 1951. The couple journeyed to Istanbul in 1960 to finalize the purchase of a competitor, the original K. Zildjian Co. 

Zildjian cymbals dramatically increased their sales after Ringo Starr used them in 1964, during the Beatles’ appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show. The huge demand created an enormous backlog that became the reason for the opening of a second plant, the Azco factory, in Meductic, New Brunswick (Canada) in 1968. 

Family tradition had it that the head of the company would pass its secrets down only to the oldest son, but Avedis III gave the information to both his sons, Armand and Robert. In early 1977 he appointed his son Armand president of the company. When he died in 1979, Armand was given the controlling interest. It was “a terrible blow,” Robert later said, because “I was running 80% of the business.” Soon after, Robert Zildjian broke away from the company amidst conflict with his brother. He said, “It got to the point where they were taking away certain parts of my job. I was the export man. I was the advertising. I was the marketing. I was quite a few things. All of a sudden I was bereft of all that.” In 1981 he started making Sabian cymbals in the Canadian Azco factory. Since the legal settlement prevented him from trading on the family name, he called his Canadian-based company Sabian, an acronym based on the names of his children, Sally, Bill, and Andy. 

It soon cut into the market dominated by Zildjian. Both companies continue to be rivals, and are among the world’s most popular cymbal brands. A quarter of a century after its foundation, Sabian was a “dramatic success” story, with annual sales of more than 1 million cymbals in 120 countries. Its cymbals have been used by many famous drummers in the world.  

Robert Zildjian remained active in management until recently, spending most of the summer in a cottage in Meductic, New Brunswick, near the main production facility. He died from cancer on March 28, 2013, at his home in Brunswick, Maine, at the age of 89.