Forging New Paths – Powell Flutes
The most striking thing about the new Sonaré Piccolo from Verne Q. Powell Flutes is its hardware. Thick, deep gray, and defiantly rectangular, the stainless steel key mechanisms on the instrument only take a few moments to radically alter ideas of the way a piccolo should look. It’s a bold redesign that’s guaranteed to turn a few heads.
But Powell’s intentions were far from being simply cosmetic for this new step-up instrument. The new piece, just unveiled and on its way to select dealers, ties together a broad range of issues that have caused trouble for piccolos recently, from the rising costs of silver to the difficulty of finding reliable manufacturing.
MMR recently paid a visit to the famous Powell headquarters in an old Maynard, Massachusetts mill, where the new piccolos are built, and spoke with president Steven Wasser about this unique instrument’s development. He expects the Sonaré to spark a trend in design, but is confident about Powell’s role as an innovator. “Anyone else looking to do this has a ways to go down the learning curve,” he says. “I feel like we have a pretty good head start.”
Piccolos have been in use for over 200 years, piping up in the highest registers of orchestras, operas, and marching bands. Their primary construction has remained basically the same, using wood, plastic, silver, and brass throughout. Powell, itself, has always maintained a highly respected position – the company opened in Boston in 1927 and has since been a worldwide leader in the field. Their fine flutes grace stages with soloists in some of the best orchestras across the world (not to mention Jethro Tull), available in fully custom builds from a varieties of gold (9k to 19.5k), silver, and even platinum. The company has extended its dominance of the high-end flute market to its premium models of piccolos. Its Handmade Custom flutes and piccolos are played by top musicians around the world and their Signature line offers a more affordable alternative. The company has recently made forays into lower price points for step-up musicians.
Powell has a developed strong line of step-up flutes in its Sonaré Winds line, but Wasser says the company has faced challenges in developing and maintaining quality piccolos at a similar price point. The instruments ended up posing problems for Chinese manufacturers, whose work assembling keys and pads has factored heavily in the process of keeping costs on the Sonaré line low. “Piccolos are just a newer animal for them and they don’t seem to be able to make the mechanisms to the same standards,” he says. “It’s just a less common and less popular instrument there. So we’d been frustrated. We just decided to move forward with the project ourselves.”
Meanwhile, the cost of materials was also beginning to get out of hand. “We’ve been sitting here watching the price of gold and silver go crazy and we wanted a high quality option for our customers,” says Wasser. “Finally, we said, ‘Let’s stop being victims and let’s come up with an alternative.’”
The body of the piccolo was designed using an American hardwood produced in layers with an acrylic resin filler. The result is a piece with authentic wood grain along the body and on the end along with the acrylic qualities of it’s resin body – they’re crack-resistant (with a ten-year warranty against it) and can withstand days submerged in water with no warping. These bodies come stained in Indian Onyx, American Amethyst, and Tuscan Umber colors.
Watch a Video of MMR’s Visit to the Powell Flute Factory:
But when it came to the key mechanisms, Wasser decided early on that nickel silver – the traditional alternative to sterling silver mechanisms – would not be an option. “It’s not the greatest material to work with,” he says. “It tends to be soft, it tarnishes, and it needs to be plated.”
The solution turned out to be stainless steel – a reliably tough metal that won’t tarnish and is comparably inexpensive. Wasser says the piccolos use a US-specific grade of the steel to ensure a consistent quality. This choice of metal, led to what might be the instrument’s most striking characteristic – its aesthetic design.
“Stainless steel does not work the way silver works,” says Wasser. “You can’t really cast it effectively. It’s very hard to forge in the die. With steel, you pretty much have to cut it, and it’s much more effective to cut straight lines than it is to cut circles and fancy curves.” The result was a design that leans more toward geometric shapes and lightly rounded angles than the circular, Baroque, French styles commonly associated with the piccolo.
“It’s a design that seemed to lend itself to the material,” says Wasser. “It’s kind of a retro Art Deco update of the design, and it just felt right to use a different design with stainless steel. The material was calling out for a different design.” Indeed, the piccolos look like nothing that’s ever been presented, with square-ish keys similar to those of a laptop computer in cool gray tones or a handsome yellow gold look, achieved by applying a coat of titanium nitride (a hardening process also used in electric drill bits).
The whole operation – the stainless steel, the specially calibrated building process, and the assembly – takes place here in the United States.
The company had been developing the instrument for over a year and is now beginning to offer models to existing Powell dealers as supplies allow (at a MAP of $2,295). “We will have some limited production at the beginning, so we’re giving preference to our Powell Rewards dealers,” he says. “We have a rewards program for dealers with Platinum, Gold, and Silver levels, so the Platinum dealers have priority over the rest of our dealers.”
With that, Powell hopes to finally head off a sector of its business that had been begging for a dramatic solution. Wasser is confident. “This was an opportunity for us to take all these different data points – we can’t find anyone to make a piccolo for us, we have demand for a lower-priced piccolo, and we need to develop an alternative to sterling and nickel silver – and we’re going to fix it all with one instrument.”
“It’s going to be a Powell Sonaré Piccolo.”