Jean Baptiste Vuillaume (1798-1875) was one of the greatest geniuses in the history of violin making, and the most important of the Vuillaume family of luthiers.
Vuillaume grew up in the French town of Mirecourt in the Vosges mountains. He apprenticed and collaborated with a number of respected craftsmen, but despite possessing great talent he initially was unable to financially capitalize on his extraordinary skills at building new violins. Noticing a growing trend among violinists to prefer older Italian instruments, he honed his deep knowledge of violin making technique into researching the secrets of the great Italian master Stradivari. Not overlooking the slightest detail with regards to its varnish, the type, age and thickness of the wood, and the arching and internal structure, he achieved exact replicas of the great instrument right down to staining the wood to appear aged. The masterly deception went so far as to replicate Stradivari’s label, thereby passing off these fakes as authentic Italian masters. Possessing a highly desirable tone and playability, they sold well, allowing the forgerer to finally collect a financial reward for his brilliance. As a result of the damaging effect that his acidic wood stains had on the instruments over time, these subterfuge violins eventually lost their high value. Nevertheless, his insights into the Italian style and trips around the world in search of the best wood enabled him to continue to craft a large number of his own violins, violas, cellos, and basses based on the Stradivarius, Guarnerius, and Amati designs.
Vuillaume was able to craft such a perfect replica of a Guarnerius violin known as the Cannone Guarnerius owned by the famous virtuoso Nicolò Paganini, that upon viewing them side by side, Paganini was unable to tell which was the original. He was only able to recognize the master instrument upon hearing subtle differences in tone during playing. The copy violin was eventually passed on to Paganini’s only student Camillo Sivori. Sivori owned great violins by Amati, Stradivari, and Bergonzi, but the Vuillaume was his favourite.
Henley’s Universal Dictionary of Violin and Bow Makers gives him a long and glowing review, while frowning upon his earlier chicanery. Henley also declares that “No Frenchman surpassed him except Nicolas Lupot,” who is considered the greatest of all French luthiers.
A number of Vuillaume’s violins were customized for their owners with national and family coats of arms emblazoned on the back, inlayed and painted designs, fanciful scrolls, and inscriptions on the ribs.
His violins are known for their reddish-brown varnish, that became brighter after 1860.
He also produced some experimental designs, such as larger size violas, five-stringed violas, a chin-controlled mute, and tubular steel bows.
He was the recipient of silver medals at Paris Expositions of 1829 and 1834, and two gold medals in 1839 and 1844. He was awarded the prestigious “Council Medal,” the Legion of Honour ribbon by the French government, and Royal insignias of various nations.
Vuillaume died at the height of his career, widely regarded as the pre-eminent luthier of his day.