As with millions of people tuning in worldwide when Prince Harry and Meghan Markle get married next week, Richard Smith will have his eye on the pomp and ceremony, as well as the glamorous newlyweds at St. George’s Chapel in Windsor Castle.
But he’ll also be hoping for a glimpse of six trumpeters who will herald the marriage with a blast of unmistakable, triumphant sound. They’ll be playing his instruments.
Mr. Smith is a 73-year-old trumpet maker from Yorkshire whose hand-crafted horns have been sold around the world, including in Canada. Four months ago, he received a special order from the British military for 20 fanfare trumpets, with a request to produce six by March. Those half-dozen trumpets, coated in silver and bearing the royal coat of arms, will announce the royal marriage on May 19, in the same way another set of Mr. Smith’s trumpets did in 2011 when Prince Harry’s brother, Prince William, married Catherine Middleton.
It will be an anxious moment for Mr. Smith when the horns are raised for their big moment. Fanfare trumpets are longer than traditional trumpets and they can be notoriously tricky to play. There are no valves on the instrument so players have to hit the notes using only their mouths, and the state trumpeters at the wedding will have no opportunity on the big day to warm up the new horns.
“It’s probably the hardest job for a musician to do,” Mr. Smith said from his workshop in a converted cowshed in the tiny village of Sheriff Hutton outside York. “You can’t afford the odd bum note.”
Mr. Smith is a rare breed in the music world. A sound scientist by training − he has a doctorate in brass sound from Southampton University – he began making trumpets, cornets, trombones and other wind instruments nearly 40 years ago, initially with his business partner, Derek Watkins, a musician who died in 2013.
He now has just one part-time employee, Richard Wright, a master craftsman who bends, twists and shapes long pieces of brass into mesmerizing creations that have been sold to military bands and musicians across Britain, as well as in Canada, the United States, Australia, New Zealand, Sweden and throughout the Middle East.
Mr. Smith’s company, Smith Watkins, is also one of the few makers of fanfare trumpets, instruments that have been used for centuries to announce the presence of monarchs or signal an important royal decree. King Charles II is believed to have had a team of trumpeters announce his arrival in London in 1660 to reclaim the English throne following the death of Oliver Cromwell.
“They have a penetrating sound,” Mr. Smith said of the horn’s unmistakable tone. His fanfare trumpets have been used regularly for royal events, including the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations in 2012. They were also played during the opening and closing ceremonies at the London Olympics in 2012.
Each fanfare trumpet takes several weeks to make and consists of 42 parts. Most of the parts are made elsewhere and then assembled in the shop by Mr. Smith and Mr. Wright, who also put on some finishing touches.
Mr. Smith is one of a handful of custom trumpet makers left in the world and Smith Watkins produces about 150 a year. And yet business has never been better, he said. That’s partly due to wealthy baby boomers eager to pick up a long-lost talent. “They’ve earned their money and they haven’t been playing for 20 or 30 years or something and they want to start having lessons again and buy a really good instrument, the best they can,” he said. It’s not a cheap hobby. Mr. Smith’s trumpets cost around £3,000 a piece, or $5,200.
Military bands are also big clients and Mr. Smith’s horns have been sold to several army, navy and air force bands including the King’s Own Regiment in Calgary. The Royal Canadian Air Force inquired about buying a set of seven fanfare trumpets but balked at the £30,000 price tag. “It’s quite a lot but you’re getting quality of course,” Mr. Smith said adding that he has sold several sets to various branches of the U.S. military.
For now Mr. Smith isn’t too worried about finding more customers. “We’re just very happy with the number that we do [produce] and how much money we make,” he said. “It’s just enjoyable hearing the things for a start; seeing them and hearing them is just fantastic. That’s our reward.”
On May 19, he’ll be watching the royal wedding at home on television. The trumpets are only part of the musical program − which includes two choirs, an award-winning young cellist, a Welsh soprano and a Baroque trumpeter − but their blast of music will mark the occasion like nothing else. And while he’s a bit nervous about how the trumpets will sound, Mr. Smith has already heard them in a recent practice. “They sounded fantastic,” he said. “They’re going to be great.”