Instrument makers have ranged from the individual who occasionally makes instruments through to the mass production of factories. The most highly prized instruments have generally come from small businesses, typically with a proprietor (who would give his name to the firm), a small number of skilled employees and one or two apprentices. In such a business the proprietor would handle the commercial transactions and might oversee or carry out the design of the instruments and the finishing.
Larger firms have more opportunity for division of labour, with more experienced staff concentrating on the most skilled tasks. Larger firms can therefore be more efficient than small businesses, but are less well adapted to responding to the needs of individual musicians. Some larger firms contracted out the manufacture of component parts.
The term "luthier" is used for individual skilled instrument makers and the heads of small workshops, in particular for makers of stringed instruments. Some makers have become famous for the musical excellence of their instruments and their craftsmanship, others are best known for their inventions and advances in instrument design.
Antonio Stradivari (1644 - 1737) is perhaps the most famous of all luthiers, and the maker whose instruments (many still in use) command the highest prices. He is best known for violin family instruments, but he also made viols, guitars, mandolins and harps. Little is known about how he managed his business and how many staff he employed, but even with his long life the number of instruments bearing his name is too high to have been produced by a solitary craftsman.
Stradivari was born and worked throughout his life in Cremona, Italy. He may have been apprenticed to Nicolò Amati. Stradivari's success, both in his own lifetime and subsequently, can be attributed to sound judgement in the design of instruments to meet needs of musicians, and strict implementation of the highest standards of quality control.
Although Stradivari's instrument design to some extent anticipated future needs, in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries it was found necessary to re-build his instruments to meet the demand for wider dynamic range and more virtuosic playing styles. Very few of his instruments survive unaltered.
The Ruckers family were builders in Antwerp (present-day Belgium) of stringed keyboard instruments which enjoyed a wide and lasting reputation. The first prominent member of the family involved in instrument making was Hans Ruckers (1540s - 1598) who built both harpsichords and organs. His son, Joannes Ruckers (1578 - 1642) also became a harpsichord and organ maker, and with brother Andreas Ruckers I (1579 - after 1645) became partners in their father's business upon his death, Joannes becoming sole owner in 1608. His nephew Joannes Couchet joined his workshop around 1627, taking it over after Joannes's death. Andreas Ruckers II (1607 - before 1667) was the son of Andreas Ruckers I.
Ruckers family members operated their businesses internationally and offered models for the French and British markets. Their instruments have continued to be valued for their acoustic and decorative design, and high standards of workmanship. Such was their reputation that their designs were not only copied but copies were also passed off as genuine Ruckers instruments. As musical demands changed in 18th century, many Ruckers harpsichords were rebuilt with extended range.
Adolphe Sax (1814-1894) is best known as the inventor of the saxophone. The successful invention of a completely new instrument is a rare occurrence. Antoine-Joseph Sax was born in Dinant (Belgium) and later took the name Adolphe. His father, Charles-Joseph Sax, was an important instrument maker. He studied clarinet and flute in Brussels. His first influential invention was an improved bass clarinet which he patented at the age of twenty-four; his work on the saxophone family soon followed and his saxophone patent was taken out in 1846.
In 1842 Sax moved to Paris and set up a factory to produce wind instruments. He continued to invent and take out patents: many of these were for brass instruments. His saxhorns were widely adopted by brass and military bands in France and Britain. The established instrument makers in France were hostile to the ambitious Sax, and a series of court cases were brought against him. The main issue was whether his brass instruments were sufficiently original to be protected by patents.
Sax was more successful as an inventor than as a manufacturer: his business flourished in the periods when he held government contracts for military band instruments, but suffered through litigation: he was bankrupt three times and died poor.