Öllerer – Handmade Musical Mastery

 

 

For almost seven decades, Öllerer has been producing the Rolls Royce among the Steirische Harmonikas, an Austrian type of accordion. The German manufacturer’s recipe for success is as simple as it is demanding: Maximum individuality combined with the finest of artisanal precision.

A faded red carpet leads the way to the heart of the accordion manufacturer: The tuning shop, where exquisitely handcrafted syntheses of wood and metal are transformed into flawless instruments. High-pitched, yet somehow discreet, a distinctive organ-like tremolo issues from behind an opaque glass door. Behind it we find Hans Kirchhofer, production manager and deputy manager at Öllerer, seated at his tuning desk, an invention by his grandfather Georg Öllerer Senior, who established the accordion manufactory in 1948. The premises are located in Freilassing, a small Bavarian city picturesquely set before the Alpine backdrop of Berchtesgadener Land, close to the Austrian border. Here, for almost seven decades, the Öllerers have been constructing the pulsing heart of Bavarian folk music: the Steirische Harmonika, which, despite its name, is actually an accordion.

We work exclusively with a team that identifies completely with the Öllerer brand.

Achieving musical excellence through artisanal perfection

The name of the musical instrument is also misleading in another way. Not only is the Harmonika not a harmonica, it doesn’t originate from the Austrian province of Steiermark (Styria), either. The Steirische Harmonika, a diatonic button accordion, was actually invented at the beginning of the 19th century in the Austrian capital of Vienna, where folk music was generally referred to as “steirisch,” or Styrian. Since its appearance in the early 1800s, the accordion has remained popular in the Alpine foothills, and market leader Öllerer sells approximately 300 instruments a year, with a delivery period of eleven months. “We have never experienced any lack of orders,” Kirchhofer says matter-of-factly. We are curious to know what their secret is. According to Kirchhofer, the family business has always attributed its success to their basic concept of artisanal perfection combined with high demands on musical quality. The production of an Öllerer “Ziach,” or squeezebox, as it is referred to popularly, requires over 100 production hours, mainly because Kirchhofer and his team of ten hardly use any pre-fabricated parts. “We have direct influence on the quality on every part we produce ourselves,” is how Kirchhofer explains their approach. “And we work exclusively with a team that identifies completely with the brand.”

Meticulous handcrafting as USP

Öllerer has been known as the Rolls Royce of the Steirische Harmonika for many years now. Musicians across the country cherish the unmistakable timbre and high-quality workmanship of the Öllerer accordion. A difference that Öllerer understandably wants to emphasize. Unlike their numerous competitors, the makers of the Freilassing instrument continue to tune their accordions manually. Though Kirchhofer starts off with a basic tuning of each instrument at the self-built tuning table, the fine-tuning is done directly on the accordion. Up to 1,000 times, Kirchhofer – or one his two most trusted colleagues – will open the instrument to make minute adjustments to the pitch. “Accordion tuners don’t necessarily need to have perfect pitch,” the master accordion builder tells us. “The tuners’ talent lies in being able to translate what they hear into a mechanical process.” Kirchhofer invests an average of one to two days per instrument on tuning it: A meticulous approach that their customers appreciate immensely.

Our marketing strategy is simple: We build instruments that retain their value.

A 50-year half-life is not unusual

Kirchhofer’s demand for excellence is also apparent in other aspects. At Öllerer the purchase of an accordion, from ordering to delivery, is a unique experience. Advising the client and planning their dream instrument can take up to half a day. Whenever possible, Kirchhofer tries to do the consultation himself. “Every instrument we make is one-of-a-kind. The better the customer can describe the instrument they would like, the easier it is for me to build their dream accordion.” A protracted process, during which Kirchhofer has to refer back to the customer’s wishes time and again. The family enterprise has just four to five instruments on display in its adjoining music shop, as basically all instruments are custom-made and sold exclusively from the workshop; the degree of individualization is influenced only by the customer’s budget. A four-row accordion from the house of Öllerer currently costs between 4,000 and 10,000 euros. Not exactly cheap, but still a bargain for its value. After all, a well-maintained Öllerer can afford its owner half a century of musical pleasure and this at a loss of value barely equal to the rate of inflation. “Our marketing strategy is simple: Build an instrument that retains its value” Kirchhofer imparts the company’s marketing concept with visible pride.

I may work on an accordion every single day, but there’s always a different customer behind it – and that’s what makes it so interesting.

Overall, however, the accordion maker doesn’t get very involved in marketing strategies and other commercial aspects of running the company. He views himself as the artisanal figurehead of the family enterprise, while his cousin Georg Öllerer Junior is in charge of commercial operations and acts as head manager. It is a work arrangement that the enthusiastic hobby angler appreciates greatly. In the evenings, Kirchhofer likes to inspect his day’s work and it is obvious that he feels very much at home in his tuning shop – which somehow brings to mind an inventor’s workshop of bygone days. “Every day I work on an accordion behind closed doors. But each instrument represents a different customer – that’s what makes it so interesting for me.” Initially, the down-to-earth experimenter had intended to slow down once he reached his mid-fifties, but somehow the accordions continue to fascinate. Which is perhaps not so surprising, considering Kirchhofer gets to walk the red carpet on his way to work. A privilege he shares with only a few Hollywood stars – who, as we all know, don’t retire either.

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