Originally from Indianapolis, Jordan Hess has had a bow in hand since the tender age of three. Now the Salt Lake City-based craftsman has a full-blown violin woodshop where he delicately crafts custom violins and bows for musical artists everywhere.
Jordan’s parents initially bought him a toy ukulele, and thus his fascination with stringed instruments began. This gift inspired him to craft a bow out of Tinker Toys and play that ukulele as a makeshift violin. When he tells the story, he also remembers forcing his brother to use a larger bow, also made from Tinker Toys, on a full-size guitar, mimicking how one would play the cello.
The young musician spent a year or more consistently enjoying several of his makeshift instruments. Finally, his parents invested in what was clearly a heart-led passion and purchased a 1/10-sized violin. And this was only the beginning for the budding artist.
Jordan’s first woodworking project was a pair of stilts he crafted with the help of his parents at the age of four. This experience ignited an entirely new passion and he spent the next several years crafting tiny sculptures out of scraps of cedar.
After ten years of pursuing and enjoying his dual passions, Jordan found himself spending a good deal of time in a friend’s woodworking shop around the age of fourteen. During a dry spell of teen boredom, Jordan decided on a whim that he would attempt the ultimate woodcrafting project, he was going to make a violin. And so the very first Jordan Hess violin came to life.
“It wasn’t playable, it wasn’t structurally sound, but I had something I had made.” Jordan recounts how his father took the rough first attempt at a violin to a local music shop to be tested and put through its paces. Little did he know that on his return, Jordan would have already developed a set of templates for his next creation.
Growing up, the artist spent his weekends at the shop where his violin woodworking quickly became the center of his world. After a short stint at an ill-fitting Salt Lake City trade school, Jordan finally landed in what felt like home at Indianapolis Violins.
How fortuitous that every year, the Violin Society of America holds a violin design competition in Jordan’s new city. This is when he finally gained the clarity of purpose he had been seeking. “This is what I am going to do, I’m going to have to find a way to do it.” Though his calling was sure, his path still had a few curves to take.
In 2014, Jordan attended the Violin Making School of America while simultaneously participating in a maker’s apprenticeship at Indianapolis Violins under Christ Ulbricht and Ted Skreko. During that time, a local violin maker named John Young chanced to see one of Jordan’s violins and was highly impressed.
John wasted no time in recruiting Jordan to work for him at his violin shop. Before long, Jordan began creating his own unique designs and shared them with his new master, who was blown away by his mastery.
“He was really developing his own ideas and concepts. The varnish was really nice, and the woodwork was authentic and deliberate, has a really nice character, and was just something fun to look at.”
Jordan recalls his time working with John: “It was the hardest part of my day, but it was also the best of my day…It gave me the why I was doing what I was doing. That wasn’t something I had really been aware of, and it gave me a foundation that I hadn’t had before.”
Now we come to 2016, the year the music takes center stage for Jordan’s creations. A violin student of the local instructor, Monte Belknap, rang him up one day, bubbling with excitement over the incredibly special violin he had just had the privilege to try. Curious about this new master craftsman, he made an appointment to try it out for himself – an experience he would never forget.
Once he started playing the handcrafted instrument, he simply couldn’t put it down. “It was so warm and full and focused. It was everything I wanted in a violin.” Monte recalls. He was so confident that was the violin for him that he declared he would take it on the spot.
However, in the fashion of a truly skilled craftsman, Jordan wasn’t so hasty. He believed he had one that was a better fit for Monte, and it would arrive the following week. As much as he didn’t want to wait, he quickly learned that Jordan knew best. Monte took home that second violin and it’s the one he still plays today.
He still has nothing but the highest praises to sing about Jordan’s work. “You don’t tell Jordan how to make a violin. What you do is you go play for him. He is quite a player. He looks at your bow arm, he looks at how you produce sound. He already has everything figured out… Jordan is able to really match what he hears with what he’s making and what he thinks these people need…He really is able to make different kinds of violins for different types of players.”
As often happens in niche markets, Jordan found himself leaving his job at the violin shop. But not all hope was lost. He had already made a name for himself in the small but highly prestigious community.
Out of the blue, he received a call from fellow music industry enthusiast Rob, who asked him to help set up a new violin shop back in Salt Lake City. As if fate had been preparing him for years, Jordan immediately had a unique vision for this new space.
“I’ve spent a lot of time in violin shops in my life. This shop is my attempt to create the shop I’ve always dreamed of. To create a shop where you walk in the door, and the world disappears. You’re here to experience the violin or the bow. Or you’re here as a maker to experience the shop and a place to work.”
As a masterful violin craftsman, Jordan believes the industry struggles to connect with who the violins are for. His perspective is a little more radical. “Violin making isn’t art. It’s an advanced tool making for the violinists who are the artists.”
This talented woodworker believes even a beautiful violin may not be a good one if it wasn’t crafted to be a tool, to be used and played and enjoyed. It may be an ornate masterpiece, but if it doesn’t do its job or suit the artist that wields it, it doesn’t meet the requirements of a truly great violin.
“At the end of the day, violins are tools…Working with wood and violins and music makes sense to me in a way that people don’t make sense to me…My alternative is creating a violin that others can use to communicate.” Jordan’s elegant and functional pieces have already begun to form a legacy in the stringed instrument world and we’re certain they will continue to do so for future generations.