Luthiers of New Mexico

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Luthier – a maker of lutes, harps, violins, acoustic guitars and other stringed instruments.

 

This is a story of three luthiers of New Mexico. All create fine works of art by hand: guitars, harps, lyres, violins, violas, cellos and basses. Each is dedicated to excellence, integrity and music. Here are their stories:


Raphael Weisman’s Harp Barn
To find harp and lyre maker Raphael Weisman (sole owner/operator of Harps of Lorien), one must drive away from Questa, NM, and seek out a small Buddhist temple and a windmill. Don’t blink. His workshop is a converted goat barn the size of a three-car garage.
The harp barn is orderly in a way that says “a place for everything and everything in its place” to the master, if not the visitor. Power woodworking equipment and hundreds of hand tools have their place next to stacks of aging wood, dust venting tubes, harp frames in various stages of production, a lute frame, and more.

Raphael writes about his work to educate his buyers: “Legend reports that Apollo made the first harp/lyre from the dry carcass of a tortoise with a string of sinew still stretched across it. The guitar is named and descended from the ancient Greek kithara, a lyre. The lyre and the harp are brother and sister.”

He is a soft-spoken man with a hint of a British accent. Born in Cape Town, he went to Israel at age 17 and later settled on a kibbutz. He participated in the Six Day War, then studied English Literature, Musicology and Philosophy at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He moved to England and began a lifelong study of lute and violin making while also learning Renaissance and Baroque music. His master’s test in 1974 was to create a replica of the “Paris Vihuela,” a beautifully detailed instrument dating from 1502. It took a year to complete, and included a visit to Paris to study and measure the original. After a stay in Laguna Beach, Raphael moved to New Mexico, learned harp making from a friend in Santa Fe, and settled down to perfect his craft.

Raphael writes, “The folk harp is part of virtually every culture. David soothed the anguished soul of King Saul in the Bible. The Bards of ancient Europe played the Celtic harp. The harp was played in ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, Africa, Greece and
Rome, too.”

Esther Silentman: Toadlena/Two Grey Hills

 



He takes his time explaining to a visitor each step in the process of creating a harp, including all the electric and hand tools, templates, equipment, considerations and pitfalls. The harps’ designs are sculptural works of art that enhance their aural beauty. He speaks with admiration of the woods like purple heart, Baltic birch, and a local spruce. Yew wood, sacred to the Druids, is used to build lutes. He found some extraordinarily warm and rich plum wood in a friend’s garden in Cambridge. It was soft and had begun to rot, but Raphael knew he could transform it into something marvelous to behold. Now it is a warm and vibrant vihuela.

Raphael sells his harps via his primary contact with the outside world, his website (see #181). He makes a variety of full sized harps, children’s lyres, and harps specifically for therapy, education or concerts. In the tradition of the Greek physician, Galen, who developed music therapy, harps are still used today to balance the body’s energy. It is no mistake that, with a name like Raphael, this harp artisan blesses the therapy instruments as he makes them, and inscribes them with mantras and prayers for peace. It is a sublime alchemy of harmony, art and tranquility.

 

Robertson & Sons Violin Shop
It’s ironic that an enterprise that creates, sells, repairs, restores, appraises and rents thousands of new and antique stringed instruments every year to customers around the world should be called a “shop.”
This state-of-the-art structure of concrete, steel and floor-to-ceiling glass is more than just a shop—it is one of the most respected and unique stringed instrument centers in the world. The Robertson & Sons Violin Shop is a national source for fine and rare violins, violas, cellos and basses.
Founder and owner Don Robertson travels the globe annually to locate and buy fine instruments for resale. His zeal for acquiring only the best instruments frequently takes him to major auction houses such as Sotheby’s and Christie’s. He annually buys as many as 2,500 violins, violas, cellos and basses, including antique instruments. Stradivarius and Guarneri violins are currently listed on the inventory. The finest instruments are kept in secured vaults.

Don Robertson is assisted by three sons, including Bryan, who specializes in restoring and rehairing bows, and counts many famous musicians among his regular clients. Justin carries out restorations and repairs, and Aaron is in sales. Bryan plays bass and cello. Aaron plays the bass regularly with the Philadelphia Orchestra, and has toured Asia and Europe. Justin plays the viola. (Bruce, who lives in California, also plays bass.)
Don is a former strings teacher for the Albuquerque Public Schools, and a former cellist for the New Mexico Symphony Orchestra. He studied restoration and repair with the renowned authority, Simone Sacconi. Don’s wife, Marie, is also a former NMSO player and serves as vice president for the company.

Perhaps because three members of the Robertson family play bass, the Shop provides more inventory of basses than its competitors, as evidenced by a 1993 International Society of Bassists Luther Award for service to bass players. One such service was Don’s invention of the “low-C extension,” a device that allows a four-stringed bass to play to low C instead of only E. European five-string basses can accommodate low C, but the American four-string basses did not, until Don Robertson found a solution. Because most of the symphonic literature requires tones lower than E, the device is widely used.
Another benchmark of quality is the fact that Robertson’s instrument makers and restorers are trained musicians themselves (including sons Justin and Aaron). So repairs are approached from both a technical and artistic perspective: visually, repairs must not be evident, nor may they alter the sound of an instrument. Musicians have come from as far away as Vienna to have their instruments properly repaired at the Robertson Shop.
Musician-salesmen ensure customers will be matched to the right instrument. An individual’s aural preferences will dictate the choice of strings or whether their instrument has a flat or arched bridge. Then instruments are fine-tuned before leaving the shop.

Don advises buyers to beware of questionable instruments sold on the internet. Some are made, poorly, in Sri Lanka and elsewhere. His concern is that poor instruments discourage students from continuing to explore their interest in music. The Shop rents over 4,000 instruments annually in nearly every state. In fact, 90 percent of the Shop’s overall business is out-of-state.


Albuquerque residents will recall that the Robertson Violin Shop was once on Monte Vista Boulevard. In 1996, Robertson designed and built a new, three-level, 13,500 sqare foot shop. The facility includes humidified storage rooms, modern workshops for instrument making and repairing, seven teaching studios, a recital hall seating 125, sales rooms and a shipping room. The recital hall is also used for master classes and for testing instruments. There is enough storage to accommodate thousands of instruments. Gracing the second-floor walls outside these rooms are lyrical works of art by J. Roybal and Alvar Sunol Munoz-Ramos, all visible from the first floor sales floor. Art makes sense here. And it all fits in the “shop.”

Weaver unknown ca. 1920


Esther Silentman: Toadlena/Two Grey Hills

 

The Pimentel Family Workshop
It helps to know who you are. When Lorenzo Pimentel was a boy, he learned that he had brothers in Juarez who made guitars. Without delay, he began working there, first as a sweeper of shavings (he loved the smell of wood), then an apprentice and ultimately a master of guitar making. He knew that Mexicans had been designing and building guitars since the first Spanish artisans brought the Old World tools and skills to the New World. He knew guitar making was part of his family and
his culture.

In the early 1960s, he moved to Albuquerque and opened a workshop to make and repair guitars. He and his wife, Josephine, had eight boys and three girls. Of his children, sons Rick, Robert, Victor and Augustine are guitar makers in the Pimentel workshop, and sons Gustavo and Hector are performers
and teachers.

 

Today, the Pimentel guitar enjoys an outstanding reputation around the world. Recognition has come in the way of a Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts, exhibition of their work at the Smithsonian Institute as part of an American Folklife Festival and much local, regional and national press. The best press was the first one: a story in Frets Magazine in 1965 first brought attention to Lorenzo’s craftsmanship, and virtually announced his workshop to a national readership and a new, and enthusiastic, market.

A half century later, the shop still makes guitars the old-fashioned way: by hand. The family creates between 400 and 600 guitars every year, and buyers wait from three months to three years for an order. The workshop also does repairs. C.F. Martin & Co. recommends the Pimentel workshop for repairs of its guitars. Hector and Gustavo also offer guitar lessons in classical, popular, folk, jazz, flamenco and Mexican techniques.

The Pimentel workshop is hidden away in a somewhat scruffy neighborhood in midtown Albuquerque. It is a structure that combines workshop with domicile, all surrounded by asphalt paving, high metal fencing and security doors. No goat barn here; this is a veritable fortress. The L-shaped workshop has fluorescent lighting and no windows. Its shelves and worktables are bulging with knives, gouges, planes and chisels, and wood in every stage of manipulation. Dust peeks out of every cranny.

But this is no ordinary dust. The allure of a Pimentel guitar is part decorative art, and all craftsmanship. The Pimentels decorate their soundboards (the guitar’s top) with semi-precious stones, pearl, red coral and walrus ivory worked into tiny, detailed inlay designs that takes hundreds of hours to complete. For wood, Robert travels the world. He gathers spruce from Germany’s Black Forest, Sika spruce from Alaska, mahogany from Honduras, Spanish Cyprus from Spain, rosewood from Brazil and ebony from Gabon, in Africa. The highly regarded Brazilian rosewood is currently on the endangered species list because rosewood produces the best sound in guitars and harps and is highly prized. Pegs are crafted from ebony and rosewood; Spanish Cyprus is best for flamenco guitars.

When asked if any of the three Pimentel sisters are part of the tradition, Robert replies with a laugh that if the women were allowed in the shop “they would be telling us what to do.” Their laughter comes often, and easily, in this relaxed and inviting family workshop. These extraordinary artisans know who they are and why they’re here.


By Mary Montaño, who teaches Indo-Hispano arts and culture at the University of New Mexico. She holds two degrees in music.

Originally appeared in The Collector’s Guide to Santa Fe, Taos & Albuquerque – Vol 22


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A Personal Look at Navajo Weavings article
Indian Trade Blankets article


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