Imagine Istanbul in the year 1622.
There’s this guy, Avedis, who spends all his waking hours valiantly trying to turn copper and iron into gold. Like so many other alchemists of his time, things will not go according to plan. But his happy accident turned into another type of gold entirely.
So one night, he melts copper, tin, and a final mystery substance and creates a new alloy that was not only strong but flexible and, when struck, made a crisp, brilliant sound. The sound told him he had not made gold, but it could make an excellent signal for soldiers engaged in battle. Because aside from alchemy, people in Istanbul in 1622 thought a lot about weapons and war because, well, remember The Ottoman Empire from High School Global?
No? Well, for context, The Ottoman Empire, at its height in the 1600s, controlled Southwest Asia, coastal North Africa, and large parts of Europe.
They controlled agriculture and trading cities, bringing enormous wealth to the Empire. They also occupied the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, giving them a claim to leadership of the Muslim world. Their ridiculously powerful military made effective use of field cannons and armed infantry. So the discovery and development of robust and flexible weaponry was a massive boon for the Empire.
Also, the government was highly centralized. All power flowed from the Sultan, who governed as an absolute ruler. For six centuries, the royal family of Osman kept the throne, passing it down through male members of the family. When there was no clear line of succession, the Sultan’s heirs had to fight for power. So when one of them gained the throne, he typically had his brothers, and other male relatives killed or imprisoned to prevent challenges to his rule. So pretty hardcore.
But lucky for our lowly alchemist, the Ottoman bureaucracy was a merit-based system. Even though many of the top officials were captives. Most were Christians, taken from conquered lands in Anatolia and the Balkans. They were brought to Istanbul, where they were converted to Islam and trained for a life in government service. To ensure a steady supply of captives for government service, the Ottomans levied a tax called the devshirme. This tax required conquered regions to provide a regular allotment of children to serve the Sultan.
Not exactly a moral business plan anyone should replicate. Obviously.
The Sultan was so impressed with our friend’s discovery that he paid him 80 legit gold pieces for the cymbals he fashioned out of the alloy. He also changed the man’s name to Zildjian, which in Armenian means Zil — cymbal, Dj — smith, and Ian — son, so “Son of the Cymbal Smith.” To protect the secret formula and the family’s fortunes, the method was only passed on to one person at a time. Father to son.
For 280 years, Zildjian’s descendants kept the secret and became the largest manufacturer of cymbals in Europe. But in 1905, they faced persecution because the family was Armenian and in the minority in Turkey. But they did not go quietly. The heir to the cymbal business, Aram, plotted to assassinate the Sultan by building a bomb, buying an identical carriage to the one the Sultan rode in and placing the bomb in it outside a palace where the Sultan had a meeting. But it went off two hours early, and it did not take long for authorities to identify the man who bought a carriage identical to the Sultan’s.
So off they went in the dark of night. Taking the family secret with them. When they arrived in America, the family bought a candy store in Boston. But a legacy is a legacy. The final heir to the family secret was forced by his grandmother to begin manufacturing cymbals once again. She said, “Anyone can sell chocolate, but no one can make cymbals the way the Zildjian family does.”
The family built a factory in Quincy, MA, in 1929, and they sought out jazz drummers who, like swing and bebop musicians, quickly adopted them as an essential part of modern drum kits.
Sales of Zildjian cymbals dramatically increased after Ringo Starr used the product in The Beatles’ appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1964. It created such an enormous demand that a second plant, the Azco factory, opened in New Brunswick, Canada.
Turns out the second factory came in awfully handy as the brothers Zildjian had quite the falling out in the ’70s and built separate businesses, the original Zildjian brand with Armand at the helm and another called Sabian, with younger brother Robert in charge.
In 2002, Armand died at age 81. The Zildjian alloy recipe was passed to his daughters, Craigie and Debbie,14th generation cymbal makers. And both women continue to run the family business from the current headquarters in Massachusetts.
It’s a fascinating tale, right? But the part that sticks with me is that it is a business based entirely on some proprietary IP. Now the idea of building an enterprise predicated on a trade secret is not unusual. Coca-Cola has been doing it for 120 years. But the idea of protecting it so fiercely and passing it on to only one person for fourteen generations is remarkable.
The sense of duty and honor, and sovereignty is not only baked into its company culture but within its family structure as well. Something successful was destined to come out of that with people whose allegiance was unwavering. People who will do whatever it takes, who will pull together, who will work harder, who will think smarter to make the business survive and thrive.
Now, it’s not necessarily something that every company can replicate per se, but it does speak to the sort of trickle-down effect. We possess a straightforward idea. We have a secret, and I’m only going to tell one person, and they’re only going to tell one person, etc. It’s fragile, but the trust that accompanies that fragility is genuinely noteworthy.