Shop owner Claire Givens wants to help elevate women in the violin trade.

Claire Givens, photography by Sarah Whiting

Let’s face it: Networking is tough when there’s only one of you. Claire Givens, owner of Claire Givens Violins, Inc., wants to change her unique status.

Givens founded her business in 1977 and moved to the current location near Orchestra Hall in downtown Minneapolis in 1981. When the 35th anniversary of the business rolled around last year, she was curious whether there were other women owning violin shops of similar size and longevity.

She found none.

Traditionally, owners of violin shops (which sell violins, violas and cellos, along with bows and accessories) have been violin makers. And traditionally, violin makers have been men. (Givens noted that it wasn’t until the mid- to late-1800s that a woman took credit for a violin she had made – 300 years after the instrument’s debut.)

Givens estimates that 8 to 10 percent of violin makers are women. But owning a shop and all it entails – inventory, shipping, repairs – sets her apart. As a woman who doesn’t make violins, Givens is doubly rare.

Unable to find anyone else like her, Givens decided to start a research project to better understand the position of women in the violin trade.

Musical roots

Givens comes from a musical family; nearly everyone played. “It was just expected,” she said. At age 9, she began cello lessons from a violin teacher, there being no cello teacher in her hometown of Dawson, Minn. She chose it because she loved the expressive sound – and the brand-new school orchestra needed cellists.

Givens finished college while living in Florence, Italy, studying cello and playing in local ensembles. It was there that she “started getting interested in the whole world of fine instruments.”

Returning home, Givens told her father, who managed an agricultural business, that she wanted to start a business importing fine instruments. “He said, ‘If you’re going to do it, you’re going to do it right,'” she recalled. “‘You’re going to incorporate, you’ll have a CPA, and I’ll introduce you to a banker to apply for a loan to buy inventory.'”

After incorporating in 1977, traveling to Florence and buying her first inventory – 11 instruments – Givens realized she lacked retail experience, so she went to work for Schmitt Music in Minneapolis for a year. During that time, Givens also developed her eye for instruments, traveling to New York for auctions where she would study but not (yet) bid on them. She also got acquainted with the major players in the field.

Now, she’s one of those players: a trustee of the National Music Museum and a director of the Violin Society of America (VSA), among other posts.

Where are the women?

Every two years, the VSA’s prestigious international competition awards tone and workmanship medals to makers of violins, violas, cellos and basses. Last year, said Givens, 30 medals were awarded. Two went to women.

“I know all these women violin makers,” she said. “Why aren’t they winning awards? I also want more women serving on competition juries, on boards of organizations, as speakers at conventions.”

Givens began her research project, starting with listing the names of any woman winner of any violin-family competition – which was a challenge because most organizations don’t list gender, she said.

The next phase will be a series of interviews with women winners. Do they feel the trade is receptive to them? How can things be improved? Givens wants to spark a dialogue.

“I proposed to a couple of women that we have a cocktail hour [for women] at the next convention – which initially didn’t go over very well,” she said, as the women didn’t want to appear exclusionary. “This is such a new idea that it’s taking people a little off guard.”

When the interviews are complete, Givens envisions a mentoring program, scholarships and apprenticeships with master makers.

Two makers have already agreed to take part, including Givens’ spouse, Andrew Dipper. His business, Dipper Restorations, specializes in restoring and conserving historic instruments and is co-located with Givens Violins.

They met in 1987 in a bookshop in Cremona, Italy. Givens was looking for a copy of Dipper’s book. By coincidence, Dipper was in the store – they were both in town for music-related events – and Givens introduced herself. They married two years later.

“Luckily, he didn’t even question moving his business from near London to here,” said Givens.

The couple visits Europe regularly on business. They also travel to all corners of the country as instrument appraisers for PBS’ “Antiques Roadshow.” In Tucson, Ariz., Givens caused a bankrupt man with a dust-covered violin his aunt had given him to leap from his chair and yell, “Thank you, Aunt Helen!” upon learning the instrument was worth $25,000 to $30,000.

When not working, Givens visits her father. At 92, he requires 24-hour care, but “he still finds my whole little business fascinating,” Givens said. “If I have a business issue, he’ll hone right in and know just the right questions to ask.”

Asked if she ever contemplates retirement, Givens smiles.

“I love this business,” she said. “I love the role we play with mating people to the instruments and giving them a voice by which they can express themselves. I can’t imagine not doing it.

“But I can imagine fewer hours.”

FFI: www.givensviolins.com