Robert Zildjian, 'cymbal' of success, dies at 89

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While breaking away from his family's business dynasty, Robert Zildjian took a closely guarded secret with him -- a cymbal-making process with roots in the 17th century -- and founded his own noisy empire in 1981.

A legal settlement prevented him from trading on the Zildjian name long synonymous with cymbals, so he called his Canadian-based company Sabian, an acronym based on the names of his children, Sally, Bill and Andy.

As Sabian evolved into a premier cymbal manufacturer, it cut into the market once dominated by Zildjian, the Boston-based company he left behind in a bitter feud with his brother.

Zildjian died March 28 at his home in Brunswick, Maine, his family announced. He was 89.

He was an heir to a family business that began in Constantinople in 1623 when an ancestor stumbled upon a mix of metals and a process that resulted in cymbals with an unrivaled musical tone. The sultan gave the family the last name of Zildjian -- Armenian for "son of a cymbal maker" -- and the formula began its march through the generations. It was largely passed from father to oldest son before coming to America in the late 1920s through Robert's father, Avedis Zildjian III, who saw a tremendous potential market with the advent of jazz.

When Avedis died in 1979, he broke with tradition and left the Massachusetts company to both sons. But his oldest, Armand, was given the controlling interest. It was "a terrible blow," Robert Zildjian later said, because "I was running 80 percent of the business."

It set the stage for a divisive legal battle that ended with a Solomon-like split. His brother retained control of the Zildjian business and Robert took over the company's Canadian factory, which had produced a lower-end line of cymbals. In his late 50s, he launched Sabian.

In the Sabian plant in tiny Meductic, Canada, ingots of copper and tin are melted into a bronze alloy, which is baked and shaped into cymbals by artisans.

Their hand-hammering produces a rich sound that caught the attention of drummers when Sabian's first cymbals reached U.S. stores in the early 1980s, Zildjian's son Andy told Music Trades magazine in 2006, the year he became president of the company.

A quarter-century after it was founded, Sabian had annual sales of more than 1 million cymbals in about 120 countries, according to Music Trades. The Sabian logo has adorned the cymbals of such drummers as Phil Collins, Chad Smith of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Chris Wilson of Good Charlotte.

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