Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Powell Flutes (part of Buffet Crampon)

Seventh in a multi-part series AT THE MILL.

An inverted triangle logo and "Powell Flutes" grace the end of the Mill & Main building No. 1, adjacent to the parking lot next to Main Street. The triangle displays the stylized letters V Q P for Verne Q. Powell, the founder of the company.

Powell was a jeweler/engraver living in Fort Scott, Kansas. He came from a musical family and played piccolo and flute (wooden) in the town band. During a visit to Chicago he heard a European flutist performing on a silver flute. He was so impressed with the quality of the sound that he decided to craft a silver flute. As the story goes, he melted silver coins, watch cases and teaspoons to create the first silver flute made in America, in 1910. The keys were inlaid with gold from gold coins. The instrument became known as "The Spoon Flute," and is still in the family's possession to this day.

Verne Q. Powell (date unknown)
The flute impressed William S. Haynes, one of several wind instrument makers based in Boston. Haynes hired Powell as foreman, where he worked for over ten years before setting out on his own, in 1927. Powell's shop was on Huntington Avenue, near the New England Conservatory of Music and Boston Symphony Hall. From the beginning Powell flutes and piccolos were renowned as top-quality professional instruments. Still, the business grew slowly. It took 25 years to reach flute #1,000. Powell sold the company to a group of employees in 1961. The company moved to Arlington in 1970, to Waltham in 1989, and then to Maynard in 1999.

Buffet Crampon, a France-based winds and brass instruments company with roots dating back to 1825, bought Powell Flutes in 2016. Starting with a long history in clarinets and saxophones, the company now presents ten brand names, with showrooms in major cities in eastern Asia, Europe and North America. Prior to this acquisition, Buffet Crampon had student-level flutes, but with the acquisition gained top level expertise and reputation.

Locally, the company employs about 50 people and is adding staff, as Powell Flutes will continue as the high quality flute manufacturing division of the parent company. Mark Spuria, General Manager at Verne Q. Powell Flutes, mentioned that “Powell employs many flutists and other musicians who perform with many local groups,” although he was not aware of anyone playing in the Maynard Band. The company is considering outreach to the schools.

Engraved gold flute. Photo courtesy of Powell Flutes. Click photos to enlarge.
The William S. Haynes Company from which Verne Q. Powell had left to start his own company still exists, now located in Acton. The Brannen brothers left Powell in 1977 to make flutes on their own, and are currently in Woburn. Lillian Burkart and Jim Phelan met while working at Powell, married, and later launched Burkart Flutes & Piccolos, currently in Shirley. David Williams was at Powell, put in a stint at Brannen Brothers, and in 1990 launched as Williams Flutes, in Arlington. Lev Levit followed the same Powell-to-Brannen path before starting Levit Flute Company in Natick. Kanichi Nagahara started in flutes in Japan, then put in a few years at two Boston area flute companies before starting Nagahara Flutes, now in Chelmsford. Eastern Massachusetts is definitely a nexus of flute manufacturing!

Flutes can be expensive. Student quality flutes are available for several hundred dollars, but professional level flutes are made of silver, gold or platinum, and can range from several thousand dollars to as much as $50,000 for 18K gold. The most ever paid for a flute was at a 1986 auction at Christie’s, New York, where spirited bidding between two parties took the price to $187,000. The losing bidder was a banker who supposedly wanted the flute for his 12-year old daughter. The flute, a 1939 creation in platinum and silver from Powell Flutes was on loan to the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art before it returned to Christie’s for auction again, in 2009. Anti-climactically, it was knocked down for only $37,500. The new owner was not mentioned by name, and it is unknown whether the flute has changed hands since. It is currently on loan to Brandon Patrick George, a well-known soloist and chamber music performer who also owns a custom-made, 14K rose gold, Powell flute.

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