Chinese Made or Made in China?

commy lute

Okay , the jig is up . There are no more Chinese Lutes available. In a manner of speaking there never were any to begin with.  Made in China? No.

Master Lu and Master Zheng?  They never existed.

Chinese made  ? in a manner of speaking yes.  I’m Chinese .

For those very few people who inquired and bought one of my “Chinese ” lutes  they actually got one that was made by me in my shop. Seriously , did any of you think that the Chinese would break into the market and flood the world with lutes? Maybe , but not likely.

This whole Shenanigan started several years ago when a discussion came up on the Dartmouth Lute discussion forum when some readers started to whine about why there weren’t any quality inexpensive lutes on the market for beginners.  Some arguments that came forth were : it’s a limited market.  Nobody could do it and make a profit. Nobody has been clever enough to use state of the art design and industrial arts prototyping to make it cheap enough, and then proverbial cost , time ,quality triad argument.  As the economy shrank and my waiting list evaporated I was commiserating with another maker about the economy that same topic came up,  could we garner more business by making a lute that could appeal to guitar players and other would be lutenists without being terribly expensive and foster another wave of players ?

To answer that question I had to ask that real basic question: Is there even a market out there if the product existed? From there came inception of Make Superior Music Company in Jianqiang .  I made several copies of a Paul Thompson six course lute in Douglas fir and Englemen spruce. ALthough of humble materials these lutes played and sounded  as well as any lutes I’ve ever made.  I posted the lutes for sale  section at Dartmouth and  spread the word locally.  In the span of six months I got only a few inquirires: Two actually bought the lutes,  another committed and never sent the payment , two declined after some hemming and hawing , another  asked to reveal my source.  Those who actually bought the lutes were quite satisfied. But everyone else balked.  Some even asked for a lower price because they were after all ” Chinese” or “Cheap ” Imports.  In my scant correspondence it was amazing how many time the term “Cheap “  came up.

Local interest?  There’s a joke about about the death of  Calvin Coolidge . Upon the announcement of his death  his associates replied ” How could you tell?”  That’s about the size of  it. Shopped around to local players  and teachers they praised them but nobody bit.

In the span of six months  7 inquiries , one on line sale , one local sale  , one jilting at the altar,  one castigation and a few I changed my minds : not much demand  to support a cottage industry.  I examined the spectrum of the argument : Make fewer , charge more, make more charge less.  Both models generated about the same amount of business which leads one to conclude there really isn’t much of a market , at least not on the US.

I often wonder about the ebay lutes made by Middle East Music. I  see scores of them advertised at $400 to $700.  Do they ever get sold?

Would it have made a difference if I had said they were made by me ?  Probably not. But I laugh when I think of one local individual looking at it and castigating the poor craftsmanship. Maybe I am a hack after all …

3 Responses to “Chinese Made or Made in China?”

  • It’s hard to assess whether you were really successful in this experiment or not.

    For one thing, I don’t think the word really got out to your targeted market. I didn’t find any information at Dartmouth. Not that I didn’t try, but they have a horrible search function. A Google search never brought up your website or your lutes. I live less than an hour from you and nobody from the Bay Area Lute Group mentioned your instruments. I learned about your business only after somebody mentioned it in a Craigslist ad; and I then came across your website after doing a search on Google.

    Then there’s the matter of matching the product to the buyer’s wants (not necessarily his or her needs). In our email exchange, you schooled me that the 6-course lute was the core instrument. But a beginner like myself gets exposed to the lute from watching the likes of Julian Bream or Ronn McFarlane on YouTube; both of whom played/play 10-course instruments. I wanted an 8-course lute because I incorrectly thought that I needed those extra two courses (at the very least). Even Middle East Music and EMS don’t offer beginners’ lutes with less than 7 courses.

    I think the beginners market is more readily found among classical guitarists who populate large and thriving forums like They’re the ones who, already having cultivated some skill with a fretted instrument, begin to wonder what they might be missing by playing transcriptions of Dowland or Weiss on a guitar. They’re the ones who want and are prepared to invest a bit to explore the lute. The subject of crossing over to the lute is a topic that has repeatedly come up.

    I think the market IS out there. Trying to find the best way to reach it probably isn’t easy.

  • Hans:
    So good to hear from you again! The Dartmouth Lutes for sale is a very widely read site. If you subscribe via the robot mailer you get the daily postings. Wayne Crips made a comment about the availabilty of “Chinese made lutes” in the for sale section. One comment to his posting and the subject sank beneath the waves.That seemed to me that the subject was not worthy of discussion but… if you look further : recently commentary on EMS lutes elicited 11 responses. Under the subject of “Cost of a lute ” 17 responses. “student lutes ( who wants to sell newboy a lute?”4 responses “Lute factories” 12 responses. Mind you these are essentially the same topics flogged over and over again.
    Perhaps you are correct in that the Dartmouth discussion board is essentially preaching to the choir. They already have lutes and like discussing why they paid so much for their instruments.
    You would think if you went to the right venue you would find the right market. Berkeley Early Music Festival? In three days I had four people try out my instruments . My colleague Ken Brodkey a fine builder himself didn’t fare any better. The Healdsburg Guitar Festival? Essentially Steel String Buyers. GFA ? High End classical Market. LSA meetings? They already have lutes and the poeple there are trying to sell theirs!

  • I think your assessments of the Healdsburg and GFA venues are accurate. I can’t comment on the others. Surprisingly, even though I had been searching over a year for a lute, I did not learn of the Berkeley Early Music Festival until it was over; after someone posted photos on the lute group at

    The EMS/Mid-East lutes on eBay do actually sell. The “Advanced Search” function shows that two 8-course lutes sold between November 18th and 30th for $614 and $576 (from different retailers). Just use the keywords ‘course lute’ and select “Completed Listings”. Prices that are highlighted in green indicate successful auctions.

    eBay’s “Advanced Search” will show completed listings for about a two-week period. Compiling six-months of data on completed listings might provide you with idea of how big the market is … at least for buyers who shop for lutes on eBay.

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