Metal clarinets were in production from 1895-1965 with the majority being made between 1924-1939 for the American market. Attempts to make a metal clarinet before Agostino Rampone invented the double-walled design in 1879 were apparently useless experiments. The Rampone design was put forward by Conn with considerable success.
Conn Wonder Double-walled Silver and Gold Clarinet
Throughout the history of C.G.Conn Co. there were many innovations–One being the first functional metal clarinet. In 1888 Conn brought a conference of instrument makers to America which resulted in developments that placed C.G. Conn in a leading position amongst musical instrument makers. The first saxophone was made in America at the Conn factory by ‘Gus’ Buescher, and the first metal clarinet for mass production was patented around the same time in 1888.
The Conn Wonder was a double-walled Albert system clarinet that went to market in 1895 with 2000 units featuring gold plated keys on a silver body. This clarinet has a really fabulous tone, and would be great to play if you don’t mind playing a little less than a half-step above the modern normal pitch, as these instruments were HP or High Pitched which was a desirable variation at the time.
Single Wall European Metal Clarinets
Shortly after the Conn Wonder made its debut, European makers followed with a Boehm system double-walled metal clarinet. Practically identical models made by Couesnon, and by Triebert who won awards in 1900, but not many were made. The few single wall metal clarinets that were made in Europe then and up to the 1920s had serious intonation problems and a sometimes a repulsive tone, so the interest in the double-walled design continued, and climaxed in 1910 with the ‘CLARI-MET’ made by Penzel-Mueller of N.Y.
CLARI-MET Double-walled Silver Clarinet
The clarinet to top all. The double-walled Penzel-Mueller, made of an alloy that was almost pure silver, was said to be preferred by principal clarinetists of leading orchestras, and declared to be the best clarinet ever made–completing the transition from wood to metal. The CLARI-MET was certainly far better than any single wall metal clarinet as it’s quality rivaled wood and dared to even claim wood obsolete.
Double-walled Metal clarinets, despite their admirable qualities, were very complicated to manufacture, difficult to repair, and too expensive ($150-$200 was a lot in 1910), so the idea was abandoned until 1926 when William S.Haynes Co. produced a sterling silver variation that had removable ends allowing a player to blow inside the double wall to warm the clarinet. Selmer also made a clarinet like this about that time, but made fewer than Haynes, and Haynes produced only about 335 of them.
The CLARI-MET was forgotten in history by 1925 when the Cundy-Bettoney Co. of Boston, the largest woodwind maker in America at the time, claimed to produce the first successful metal clarinet with the introduction of the Silva-Bet. The Silva-Bet did not have the intonation problems, or the harsh sound of many of the earlier metal clarinets, and it featured a tunable barrel. It can be reasonably compared to a wooden clarinet for intonation and quality of sound. It was claimed that the secret was using pure German Silver in the construction, but the thickness of the metal, and the quality of the design and the craftsmanship may have been a more important factor. Who made the best first is hard to determine. Penzel-Mueller was forgotten and others may have been ignored, and records lost.
Harry Pedler Clarinets
Harry Pedler & Co was in operation from 1919 until 1930 in Elkhart, Indiana. They mostly produced clarinets made of wood or hard rubber. Harry Pedler also made an extremely high quality metal clarinet about the time Bettoney introduced the Silva-Bet. These early high quality Pedler clarinets used the thickest metal of any, ever.
When Harry Pedler retired in 1929, the company was sold to Martin, and countless cheap metal clarinets were produced by Martin under the Pedler brand; with model names like “The Pedler”, “Premiere”, “American”, “Hoosier”, and “Custombuilt” among others including a lot of “Stencils,”
These were the typical very cheap metal clarinets of the day that were designed for kids. But those metal clarinets made under direct supervision of Harry Pedler himself were far from the cheap student variety, and include some of the finest silver clarinets ever made. The professional quality silver clarinet made by Pedler used a fine metal with bell-like qualities. The construction can be compared to Selmer with a thick metal body, and expert craftsmanship; but the Pedler is perhaps a better clarinet than the metal Selmer because there are less problems with the tuning barrel, and the Pedler seems to be preferred by jazz players (the biggest fans of metal clarinets).
LeBlanc Paris Silver Plated Noblet Clarinet
It may have been earlier than 1924 that LeBlanc in Paris made a metal Noblet of silver plated brass, and the first of the Noblets should hardly be considered unsuccessful–with a very wonderful tone, and not a serious intonation problem. The early Noblet with a raised diamond on the bell is far more desirable than many of the various models that were made later. Noblet was still made in the 1950s after most makers quit, and was common with a nickel finish or lacquered brass instead of silver plate. They continued to be made up until the early 1960s.
Silver King Clarinet
The Silver King made by H.N. White of Cleveland had a rather wonderful tone, but it still had intonation problems when it first appeared, probably in 1924. By 1930 the improvements on the Silver King would challenge the Silva-Bet for desirability. The Silver King ended up being the best metal clarinet made (maybe, but which one?) by the time most of the other makers had all quit. The Silver King was produced up until the early 1960s in dwindling numbers.
Around 1927 was a special time, and as mentioned earlier, Haynes and Selmer came back with another attempt at a double-walled model, but didn’t make many.
Armored Conn Metal Clad Clarinet
Conn also entered the contest, and perhaps problems with dents may have inspired Conn to respond to this design with their introduction of the Armored Conn–a metal clad clarinet that will resist dings (that can’t be removed from double-walled clarinets), and you don’t have to breath between the walls to warm it up.
The armored Conn was so heavy that again, the best metal clarinet ever made (maybe) ends production. It may have been impractical for many players because of weight, and the rather high price.
400 Metal Clarinet Brands
In 1927, Selmer came out with a metal clarinet for its top model, and these often are referred to as the best metal clarinets. This was boom time for metal clarinets. Then Conn came out with a very different and amazing thing in 1929…But by this time there is too much to tell. In the days before electronics every kid wanted a horn, and developing a better metal clarinet gave way to building a cheaper one, and the market was flooded with cheap metal clarinets to meet the demand in the late 20s.
There are nearly 400 brand names that appeared between 1926 and 1939, after which most metal clarinet production stopped because of war. After the war, few makers returned to production of metal clarinets, and even fewer after plastic clarinets were invented in 1948.
Ninety-five percent of antique metal clarinets that survive today (as ornaments usually) were cheap student models. To those described above–Conn, Couesnon, Triebert, Penzel-Muller, Silver King, Silva-Bet, Noblet, Selmer, Haynes, and Pedler–we should also note that Buescher made a respectable pro model in the late 1920s and into the 30s. Most of the rest you might find are ‘stencils’, or instruments that you could put any name on, but were made by less than half a dozen makers.
Thoughts on Buying a Silver Clarinet
Bear in mind that in selecting a metal clarinet you’re dealing with an item that may have been abused (often they were), and after sitting over 65 years the rods could be frozen, and an overhaul can be more costly than is usual for a clarinet, so it’s important to pick the right one.
There are few pro models. Most metal clarinets aren’t worth the price of an overhaul, and the values of those lower quality instruments aren’t estimated below–value is about $35 if for use only as ornaments.
Some obscure models not mentioned here might have merit, but mostly only to collectors. If you can’t show up at jazz band at the local University without the risk of getting kicked out then the clarinet is not on this list. Of course there may be exceptions, but why risk it?.
There is a lot of variation sometimes from one horn to the next within the same brand, and sometimes a brand, that is normally not so good, turned out something wonderful. The Raymond is ultra light and often has a fabulous tone, and is included in the valuation list below, along with a Pan American, Cleveland, Columbia, and Custombuilt because they are often misrepresented as the more desirable pro models, and sometimes they are really great.
How Much is a Silver Clarinet Worth
Not the value of something you find in a junk pile or attic, but an instrument that works.
- Four piece with sterling mark, and gold wash in bell: $750-$1900
- Silver King with sterling mark-One piece
- (Late model): $500-$900
- (Early model–Often hard to play in tune): $200-$800
- No sterling mark: $280-$600
- Other H.N.White ‘King’ models like ‘American Standard’, ‘Cleveland’ and ‘Gladiator’ are cheap student grade horns–With the exception of the late ‘Cleveland’ which has a fat looking bell. These are as good as the Silver King ‘N.P.’ except lacquered brass, and therefore: $300-$480.
- $400-$880, and questions should be about the barrel when you select one. These are very solid good quality metal clarinets, and a good value because they are more common, but a defective barrel can be a problem.
- The ‘Columbia’ is a step down, and may have a non-tunable double-walled barrel: $275-$395
- $550-$2000 determined by a wide range of quality, and condition;
- $400-$750 (Some are just like the top-of-the-line)
- (Usually says ‘Manhattan’): $250-$375
- Raymond (Varies tremendously in quality, but some are quite interesting and they are very rare): $350-$600. Oddly, the Selmer Raymond was made by LeBlanc.
Pan Americans aren’t Conn, but a division of Conn, and be careful about the representation. Experiments were conducted with Pan Americans, and some are quite good.
- 524N: $550-$1500 (Overhauls can be demanding).
- Late 30’s Conn 514: $420-$970. The one with a Phoenix & World on the bell, and a tunable barrel: $390-$700.
Cavaliers and other Conn brands are junk–Including most Pan Ams.
- With tunable barrel: $525-$930 (value is partly because of rarity and is hard to establish because each one is different-Some are truly fabulous).
- Without tunable barrel: $430-$690
Most were the cheapest student clarinets made before plastic clarinets were invented in 1948, but quality of metal clarinets varied widely, and can be evaluated according to how they compare to those listed above, e.g; a Pedler with a fat tunable barrel and gold wash in the bell might be valued the same as a Silva-Bet, or a Selmer, even though it is rarer.
It’s because it is confusing that there were so many Pedlers like the ‘Custombuilts’ that may be engaging, but most are just good student grade–made when Pedler sold the company to Martin.
A clarinet actually made by Harry Pedler might be the very best silver clarinet you can find. And that’s how it goes with Holton, Boston Wonder, and Penzel-Mueller too. There are a few good ones, but most are just junk. Not just any Noblet, but an early one with a diamond on the bell, are the same as Selmer Raymond, and those are perhaps the best of the “student” grade.
Some Elkhart clarinets are actually pro Conns, but there should be suspicion because a lot of clarinets say “Elkhart” on them. One that said “Elkhart by Buescher” on the case, and engraving on the bell similar to the “Elkhart” sax by Buescher was really made by Pedler (Martin).
These that were listed should represent a standard that other clarinets can be compared to. And out of the hundreds of names that metal clarinets bear there might be something good–If it compares to what we know of Silver King, Selmer, Silva-Bet, Buescher, and Conn.
The most common student metal clarinets have an average value of only about $25 (in need of repair, but all there).
Make sure that any metal clarinet you are interested in has a barrel, because there are many types that often were lost by the kids, and the proper replacement can be difficult to find.
Value considerations for clarinets are for playable, undamaged instruments, and value determined through analysis of actual sales figures provided by visitors to this site.
Year of Manufacture: As stated earlier, few metal clarinets were made after 1940, but it started when Conn got their metal clarinet patent in 1889, with clarinet No. 1 being attributed to 1895. The clarinet pictured above is a Conn HP E Albert, and was one of the first ever made.