Let’s speak to the owner, Florian Leonhard, to find out more.
How did you start Florian Leonhard?
As a teenager I remember really wanting to be a surgeon. My grandfather was a biologist, and I had a real interest in microbiology and science. My father was an artist and my mother was a violinist, so from an early age I was surrounded by art and music! I started the recorder at age 4 and then the cello at age 9 but I found finding the motivation to practice difficult. I took great interest in the cello and in my mother’s violin as instruments however; in their construction and how to repair them. I had a passion for “fixing things” so much so that my Dad suggested I should become a violin maker. I dismissed this initially; a ridiculous idea as I wanted to do medicine.
As I got close to the end of High School my father’s suggestion seemed less ridiculous however. I wanted to follow something I was passionate about so this made a lot of sense. I was lucky to have supportive parents, who didn’t want to push me into a particular direction. Once they knew I was considering this, they drove me to Mittenwald to the alpine peaks of Bavaria, to see what it might be like to be at the Mittenwald School of Violin Making. From that day on I was determined to get into the school, even though at the time it was very oversubscribed with about 1200 applicants a year for just 10 places. This was the 1980’s, a romantic era where painting and becoming a violin maker were popular choices! I do think if you believe strongly enough in something though it will happen. Even though I was so determined to get into the school, it was a still a shock when I was offered a place, although a happy one.
Mittenwald School of Violin Making has an intense seven semester programme and, even then, you only really learn the basics of the trade. It is a great institution and is state funded, which is quite unique. The programme there includes everything from the tree to varnishing the instrument but then you need to learn the rest from working in workshops.
Following the completion of my course, I was offered a job at W. E. Hill & Sons in London, to my amazement. I had built a viola which I took to them as evidence of my work and this resulted in them offering me a job when I finished my studies at Mittenwald. It was a dream come true to work for this company, based in London. It has a great history, with the family working on violins way back in the 1660’s and operating the company from 1762. London was, and continues to be, the international trading centre for violins and I worked on some great violins with W. E. Hill & Sons. All the Stradivarius violins in the world went through them to get repaired. I worked there for 4 years and became their workshop manager.
In 1989 I was called up for conscription, a requirement of being a German citizen at the time. I opted for 18 months social service rather than the armed forces. This was enforced time away from violin making and restoring but I had already been headhunted to work for a violin maker in Germany where I worked for two and half years. I was then approached by Withers in London, who were about to fold, to help turn them around as their workshop manager. This I did successfully within a year or so; it was a great challenge and gave me the experience I needed to set up my own business, which was another dream of mine.
Setting up the business in 1995 was difficult but I created my own funds to get things started, mainly by taking on 0% interest credit cards! I kept cash coming in with a few big restoration projects which would take a couple of years to complete but charged a monthly rate. It was difficult being a relative newcomer in the market though; the competition was constantly trying to bring you down and even if you did a good job on someone’s violin, they liked to keep you a secret so that you were available next time you needed them and so that their violin was sounding the best!
What were some of the key milestones in the business?
There were a couple of significant break-through moments. I had gained a share in a £50k violin, with three other shareholders. My share was a quarter of the value but not by paying for this but by offering my restoration skills instead. The second leader of the violin at the BBC Symphony Orchestra took an interest in the violin. However, when she got a second opinion from J. A. Beare’s, they indicated that the scroll was “possibly” not quite right. I was able to convince her though based on my knowledge about the true provenance of the violin and with this I gave her my certification. With this she bought the instrument and then I knew from that point onwards that my reputation and knowledge could really help me and providing verification and certification from myself would make a real difference to the business. From here the trust in my products grew and I was able to identify instruments, restore them and sell them to all sorts of orchestral players.
Another key moment was when I asked my wife to bid on a violin listed at £4k but I knew was worth a lot more. I instructed her to bid up to £120k. All the key trade dealers had tried to collaborate to keep the price down, but the bidding ended up increasing despite this. My wife ended getting the violin with a successful finishing bid at £120k but it was still worth a huge amount more. This really made me stand out as a key dealer in the market to be taken seriously.
What is the best thing about running a business such as Florian Leonhard?
The business has changed and grown significantly since 1995 and we have grown into a team of 16 people now. My passion for the instruments remains and I continue to learn and research; I wrote a book “The Makers of Central Italy” and am researching for my next book. I have built up a great team here and now I concentrate my time on authentication of fine string instruments as there are not many people in the world that can do this! I really love what I do and, prior to Covid, spent a lot of time travelling the world after instruments.
What would be your advice for someone who would like to follow your career path?
You need a real passion for violin making and be prepared to spend years learning. I would highly recommend going to one of the violins making schools. There is only one in the UK, Newark International School of Violin Making, which is fantastic, and I would also recommend the school in Germany where I went; Mittenwald. You then need to be prepared to continue to learn in workshops and, unlike other careers, take 15-20 years to become an expert before you can really become established and make a name for yourself. I would expand my business further, but I need the right talent to grow the business; people who have been through the training and have the same passion for detail and the instruments as I do.