No Good Reed Goes Unnoticed.
By Donine Henshaw Dominice
IT BEGAN AT 34 Via Dell' Anconella in Florence, Italy, in 1890. Giuseppe Prestini couldn't find what he was looking for, and decided he would have to make what he needed himself. The result of his search was a legacy that spanned three generations and two continents. Today, Prestini Musical Instrument Corp. is Arizona's 16th-largest exporter, with international headquarters in Nogales, Arizona.
The company makes reeds and key pads for woodwind musical instruments, and also produces saxophones, with annual sales of more than $1 million. Thirty-three percent of the company's sales are in exports.
Giuseppe Prestini was a renowned musician and professor of oboe, a double-reed woodwind instrument with a high, penetrating tone; he achieved his renown at the Florence and Venice conservatories in Italy in the 19th and 20th centuries. On many occasions, Arturo Toscanini, one of the most influential conductors of his time, chose Prestini as oboe soloist for concert tours in the United States.
Prestini, after a fruitless search for reeds that could produce perfect sound, founded a factory to make oboe tools and reed products "to the exceptional quality standards he demanded for his artistry," says his grandson, Giuseppe "Pino" Prestini II, president of Prestini Musical Instruments Corp. The professor established the House of Prestini and developed several technical innovations to improve the instrument's performance.
"Together with his musical and artistic ability, he possessed a deep technical understanding of the oboe. He studied the oboe's various components and made a number of noteworthy modifications so as to obtain the most satisfactory instrument for all performers and in particular his students," Prestini says.
"Today, the changes that Professor Prestini introduced for the oboe are known as the Prestini keys."
Professor Prestini's son, Silvano, followed in his footsteps. He was professor of oboe and piano at several Italian conservatories and performed at the leading theaters and opera houses in Italy and Europe. After Silvano joined the House of Prestini in 1947, the company began to expand rapidly.
Silvano Prestini moved the factory from Florence to Cogolin, France. This area, near the French Riviera, produces the finest Arundo Rex cane, the material used for reeds.
Under Silvano's leadership, the company also began manufacturing key pads for woodwind instruments. These pads, which go underneath the keys, determine the quality and scope of resonance in woodwinds, including the saxophone, clarinet, piccolo and flute.
In the early 1970s, after Pino Prestini joined the company, the family opened an office in New York to import goods from the Italian operation. "And then in 1979 we formed the corporation here (in Nogales) and started manufacturing here," Prestini says. Currently, the company is headquartered in Nogales, where the manufacturing takes place, and has a satellite office in Cologne, Germany.
"The main reason we came from Italy was in order to be closer to the U.S. industry manufacturing the musical instruments, you know, for which we sell the pads," says Prestini, 49, who lives in Nogales with his wife, Annette, who is human resources director for the company, and their 10-year-old daughter, Michela.
Prestini's office walls are covered with sepia-toned photographs of his grandfather, father and of other famous musicians with whom they played, along with letters of appreciation in Italian, written on paper yellowed with age, from various musicians. Grandfather Prestini, in a large portrait behind Prestini's desk, seems to be watching over his grandson as his legacy continues to flourish. A leather-bound book of original musical compositions by Prestini's grandfather rests on top of a wooden stand in front of his desk.
"I think one of the greatest gifts in my family is the fact that this tradition was preserved, as you can see from all these historic pieces we have," Prestini says.
Today, the company produces reeds and pads, and recently began producing saxophones, Prestini said during a recent interview at company headquarters, located at 351 Patagonia Highway in Nogales.
"Initially the company worked as a twin plant, so we had a factory in Mexico and one in the United States. In Mexico, we would do some parts of the intensive labor, and in the United States, we would do the finishing quality control and everything," Prestini says.
About 24 employees work at the 5,800 square-foot Nogales plant, manufacturing the reeds and some of the pads, and assembling the saxophones. Another 30 employees work in the 4,000 square-foot factory in Nogales, Sonora, assembling the pads. An additional eight workers do assembly at home in Arizona and are paid by the piece, he says. The company produces about 10 million pads, 1 million reeds, and more than 600 saxophones annually.
Prestini says challenges arose in America because, "One thing that was really difficult...was that all of our manufacturing was European dependent. All the suppliers were European, all of the raw materials were European," Prestini says with an Italian accent. Training U.S. suppliers to manufacture the materials that the company needed "took years of pain."
Training the suppliers wasn't the only major task. Manufacturing equipment also had to be developed. Prestini, who has a degree in mechanical engineering, designed and built all the machines currently used in manufacturing the reeds in the Nogales plant. The equipment used to produce the pads is from Italy and has been automated by Prestini. The machines can be heard humming throughout the factory, amid the hammering of wooden mallets--used in short-run production of pads--and blaring Mexican music enjoyed by the employees.
"When we came to America we had six customers," Prestini says with a hearty laugh. "Now we have over 2,500 accounts. So it was smart (of my father) to make the decision to move the company to the United States."
The company boasts $1.4 million in sales annually and was listed last year as the 16th largest exporter in Arizona by The Business Journal, serving the Phoenix area. The Journal maintains an annual list of the 25 largest Arizona exporters ranked by percentage of sales in exports and based on questionnaires filled out by the companies listed.
One-third of Prestini Corp. sales are from exports, Prestini says. He declined to give a dollar figure for export sales. "I don't think there's another company in Arizona that exports to as many different countries as we do. We export to literally every country in the world."
Pads are sold to instrument manufacturers in the United States, Europe, Japan and Taiwan. More than 1,800 repair shops in the United States also buy pads, which are handcrafted discs made from either bladder (cow intestines) or leather on the bottom, felt in the middle and cardboard on top, Prestini says. Under each pad is a resonator made out of metal or plastic, which is dome-shaped or flat, depending on the musician's preference. "And in the early '90s, we started making saxophones," Prestini says. The body and keys of the saxophone are made in Taiwan and assembled at the Nogales plant.
"The reeds we sell mostly directly to importers from foreign countries or to dealers and wholesalers here in the United States," Prestini says. Many of the reeds are made from cane that was grown from roots Silvano Prestini brought from the family plantation in southern France. The cane is grown on 80 acres that Prestini bought in Sonora. Because Nogales, Sonora, and southern France have similar climates, growing conditions are excellent, Prestini says.
Prestini planted the first field of cane there in 1985. "It took us about five years to get the field up to the level where we could use it for our manufacturing. So before we used to use cane strictly from France, and now we use maybe 10 percent from Europe and California and the rest is all from Mexico," Prestini says.
The firm worked closely with University of Arizona music professor Elizabeth Ervin in developing the cane.
She helped the Prestinis learn "when to cut it, how to age it," Prestini says. "She made the connection between the cane in the field and the musician."
Ervin, interim associate director of the UA School of Music, says she got involved with Prestini "because I'm an instrumentalist, a saxophonist, and for a long time had been interested in trying to do a project like this because the commercial reeds that we get tend to be so bad. And, of course, the reeds are a really, really critical part of playing. No matter how good you are, no matter how good your instrument is, if the reed is bad, you're going to sound awful. So it's really critical to have good reeds."
Ervin worked with some of the technicians in Prestini's factory, and designed "what we thought was the perfect shape for a reed," which is similar to a duckbill. This design, executed with the "gorgeous cane" grown in Sonora, resulted in a reed that has been tried "by people all over the country and the response has been wonderful. They're really catching on," says Ervin, who has been professor of saxophone at the UA for 23 years. Ervin uses Prestini pads and reeds not only in her saxophone, but also in her clarinet and flute.
The company now offers two brands of reeds, one made from Mexican-grown cane, and one from French cane. The reeds come in eight available strengths for four types each of clarinet and saxophone.
The traditions and skills passed down through three generations of the Prestini family have contributed to the success and continued growth of the company, as well as its reputation among musicians.
"Pino comes from a tradition of musicians. His family, his father and his grandfather were...some of the most famous musicians in the world," Ervin says. They also were "makers of fine instrument products, you know, the knives and the tools that go into repairing and making reeds and instruments.
"And so Pino inherited this sort of business and this mentality from his family, that they're from the old kind of artisan school where things are done by hand. And nowadays, unfortunately, the music business has gone the way of most other businesses into like heavy, heavy mass production. And Pino still does a lot of hand work in everything he makes. He's got this sort of mentality that 'instead of making as many things as I possibly can,' his mentality is, 'I'll make as much as I can make well using the techniques I know are best,' " Ervin says.
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