The Marvels of Artisans

Masterly artisanship, a rare indulgence in the modern day, is on display at The Met in the Making Marvels: Science & Splendor at the Courts of Europe exhibition.

William Bairamian


I have a special fondness for artisans and their work. It’s rare to find items today that were produced by hand, much less by the hands of a master who is able to make something of exquisite beauty and ineradicable quality. Instead, the artisan has been replaced with the designer, a person who envisions a thing, creates a scalable model, and sends it off to be mass produced.

The difference between the designer and the artisan is that the artisan envisions what he is going to build, and then builds it; the designer envisions the thing (I think the jargon is “ideates”) but rarely builds it himself.

For example, Jony Ive of Apple fame, imagined and designed the iPhone, the most popular product in recent memory — but Ive wouldn’t be able to build an iPhone. A luthier, on the other hand, imagines the design of the violin, then he himself makes it or, at worst, his apprentice does. This convergence of imagination and craftsmanship leads to perfectly unique products that cannot and will not ever exist again in the form in which they are once produced, even if there are copies made of it by the same artisan.

However beautiful, fancy, or genius your iPhone seems, you would not — and do not — think that you irrevocably damaged a masterpiece of craftsmanship when you drop it in the pool. You will be able to get another one like it, or better, in an instant; you cannot do the same with the work of a true artisan, which is one of the reasons a Stradivarius violin sells for millions of dollars hundreds of years after it was made.

Antonio Stradivari

This brings me to a soon-closing exhibition at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York called Making Marvels: Science & Splendor at the Courts of Europe.