Back in 2002, when Martin realised that they were approaching the manufacture of their one millionth guitar, plans were set in motion to ensure that it was something truly unique. Acoustic talks to Dick Boak about the mightiest dreadnought ever made, the incredible Martin D-100, which costs a whopping $115,000!
Inside C.F. Martin & Co.’s museum in Nazareth, PA, in a custom made display case, sits a very special guitar. Based on Martin’s iconic D-45, the instrument bears the serial number 1,000,000 and a great deal more besides. Festooned with gold, pearl and precious stones, the D-100 is the most elaborate instrument the company has ever made. Construction took two years and the final result was displayed at the January 2004 NAMM show in Anaheim, California. Subsequently, a special limited edition of 50 D-100s were made – with a slightly more subdued specification – at an initial asking price of $100,000. After 10 years in the company’s custom catalogue, the limited edition has only just sold out, but I asked Dick Boak – C.F. Martin & Co.’s director of museum, archives, and special projects – to start at the very beginning of the story, around the time that the D-100 project was conceived.
‘When we approached serial number one million we engaged the talents of Larry Robinson who is one of the finest inlay artists in the world. We’ve done a number of projects with Larry, typically milestone or themed guitars and after we agreed upon a design, we sent some parts to him – the sides, the back, the head plate and the fingerboard – and he started working. He doesn’t use any mechanisation or computer-aided cutting, he does everything by hand and so it took him a long time, because there are several thousand pieces of hand-cut mother-of-pearl, abalone, mammoth ivory, solid gold and many other materials in the millionth guitar. It took the better part of two years to complete and when he had finished executing the parts and engraving everything, he sent them back to Martin. There are 42 precious jewels – sapphires, rubies, emeralds, diamonds, aquamarines – which were delivered in an armoured car after the lacquering was complete. The settings were already in place, but Larry Robinson flew out and worked on installing the jewels for the better part of a day,’ Dick starts. ‘It was built as a museum piece but none the less, there were a number of dealer visits and shows afterwards where people were given the opportunity not only to play it but also have their picture taken with it and it was a very popular thing until our insurance company told us that it was too valuable to take out of the building! So we built a special revolving display case for it in our museum.’
What sort of tonewoods were used in the production of the millionth guitar?
Well, it was Brazilian rosewood, of course, with Italian alpine spruce for the soundboard and a mahogany neck, all from Chris Martin’s personally selected and set-aside timber. It has what we call a “rose” in the soundhole, which is itself an incredible work of art. It’s primarily decorative, but when the rose is removed the guitar has the timbre of a Brazilian/Italian spruce dreadnought. The pearl is fairly shallow and I don’t know how that impacts on the tone, but it’s a magnificent instrument and it plays and sounds great. We’ve had requests to purchase the guitar for a million dollars, but Chris Martin is not interested in selling the instrument, ever.
After completion of the original millionth guitar, demand was high for an actual production model and so Martin set about producing a limited edition of 50 reduced spec replicas.
Almost immediately after the completion of the D-100 we engaged Pearlworks to interpret Larry Robinson’s inlay design in a replicable and perhaps somewhat simplified motif. We reserved serial numbers surrounding the millionth guitar – for example 1,000,001, 1,000,002, up to 1,000,050 – for the limited edition D-100 that followed. These were built to order, really; we couldn’t build 50 of them all at once because that’s just way too much work. So we did it incrementally and we’ve just sold the last of those 50 guitars, so it took the better part of 10 years to make that edition and they really have unprecedented, beautiful inlay work. They started retailing at $100,000, however, the price was increased probably five or six years in and it’s currently on our price list at $114,999, but my understanding is that they are sold out.
Were the customers for the D-100 players or mainly collectors?
As an investment, it would be hard to beat, but I can’t imagine that anyone who bought these would want to scratch them up or play them on stage and I think that’s a little bit of a paradox because, for me, what Martin guitars are all about is not necessarily decoration but tone. In this case I think it was a desire on the company’s part to celebrate 175 years as well as the millionth guitar milestone. So they’re primarily a collectible and in the hands of wealthier guitar players and possibly investors.
Are there any more special editions in the pipeline at present?
I’d say that the focus lately has been on the Martin Authentic models which are made with hide glue and follow the exact same process that was used during the pre-WWII period; entirely hand-built, hand-shaped, every brace tucked under and hand done. We’ve been adding to the Authentic line because frankly those instruments are probably the best of what we do, along with the Custom Shop guitars. The Martin Custom Shop is really going gangbusters with orders and the reason is that the instruments are just magnificent. There’s a lot of talk about individually made guitars built by luthiers and artisans and I think Martin is playing in that arena on a high level.
D–100 Limited Edition Specification
Model: D-100 Deluxe
Body Size: Dreadnought
Top: Adirondack spruce
Back: Solid Brazilian rosewood – custom pearl inlay
Sides: Solid Brazilian rosewood
Nut: Fossilized ivory
Scale Length: 645mm
Number Of Frets Total: 20
Nut Width: 44.5mm
Tuners: Waverly gold hand engraved w/ butterbean knobs
Bridge & End Pins: Fossilised ivory/green tourmaline dots bordered in 14-carat gold settings
Case: Geib style w/ black leather exterior and black velvet interior
The Martin Custom Shop
Fred Greene is in charge of Martin’s Custom Shop, overseeing everything from customers’ special orders to projects like the recent Ed Sheeran signature LX1E and, of course, flagship models like the D-100.
The D-100 must have been a massive undertaking…
It really was. When they originally proposed doing the D-100 we didn’t have a separate area to build our custom order guitars. They just ran through the regular factory with a custom worksheet. Around 2005 we decided to go ahead and carve out a space in the factory and identify some people who would form the genesis of a true custom shop. A place where, if you ordered a custom guitar, it would stay within this one particular area and this one group of highly-skilled craftspeople. So I hand-picked a small group of folks and we found a place in the factory and set up the workshop. We’ve grown it since and now we’ve probably up to a dozen people working within the Custom Shop. So when we’re working on a project like the D-100, the custom folks will handle a great majority of the operation and the craftwork that goes into it. The main part is that it’s such a valuable instrument – so expensive – and it’s so much detailed work that it’s much easier for us to take care of quality control and protect a guitar as it goes through the different processes if it’s kept within a small, self-contained area. You’d be surprised at how many little things can go wrong when you have that much pearl inlay work on a guitar.
Can you outline the breadth of work undertaken by the Custom Shop?
We have our own custom office now and they act as a sort of concierge for someone who is ordering a guitar. People call up with some of the craziest requests for guitars and you need someone who can help usher them through all the different questions and geometry issues that come up, because technically you can spec out a guitar that just physically won’t go together if you pick all the wrong options. If you were building a car and someone asked for a Ferrari engine to be put inside a Mini you’d have all these issues that suddenly just won’t work. It may have sounded great in your head when you were imagining it, but physically it just won’t go together. The Custom Shop folks do everything from wood selection and the body and neck construction, neck shaping, custom brace shaping, hand inlay work, neck fitting, bridge glueing and all the set-up work. Everything you’d expect to be done when you’re building a guitar, with the exception of finish, runs through the Custom Shop.
What would be a typical custom order for Martin?
The typical ones are somebody who is riffing off a current model. So there are one or two items that they want to see that we don’t offer in the standard line. A lot of times it’s an Adirondack top or some special bracing pattern, but more often than not it’s neck shape. That seems to be the primary issue where people have specific feelings about what they like or don’t like. They want a 45mm nut or 43mm offered with a strange taper or a very difficult back of the neck shape; some people like a hard V Martin shape and then other folks want a thin neck and that tends to run along age lines. Younger folks tend to want thinner necks and older folks are more comfortable with the more traditional neck shapes. People get very picky about tuning machines and then we get a lot of custom orders for sunbursts, because we don’t normally offer a lot of sunburst finishes.
For more information on C.F. Martin & Co. and their Custom Shop, visit: www.martinguitar.com