Let me start writing about Selmer saxophones by … not writing about Selmer saxophones.
According to the official Selmer website, www.selmer.fr (requires Adobe Flash plug-in), the first saxophone built by Selmer was a Series 1922, released on December 31, 1921. However, if you click the button to look at the picture on the Selmer website of Alexandre Selmer, that’s not a Selmer Series 1922, Modele 1922 or a Modele 22 he’s holding. How can I tell? It’s got opposing bell keys and it’s not a low B horn. Obvious conclusion: it’s either a prototype that never went into production or it’s not a Selmer.
If you browse through the excellent Selmer website, you’ll come across a 1910 catalog (pages 3-5) that lists saxophones. A tad interesting, no? Well, yes and no. The horns in the 1910 catalog are what are known as “stencils.” What a lot of companies that did not have a saxophone line did was to buy saxes from a different company and literally take out a stencil and put their own name on the horn. In the case of Selmer NY, for instance, the saxophone line was mainly comprised of Conn and/or Buescher-made instruments, with a sprinkling of a few Martins. Selmer Paris? Well, what I see is a tad confusing.
Several years ago, when I wrote my Selmer page for www.saxpics.com, I came across an old advertisement for Selmer at www.saxgourmet.com. Take a look at the model numbers on that advertisement: 152s alto, 153s C melody, 154s Bb tenor. The engraving on those horns parallels that from the 1910 catalog on the Selmer website. Take a look at another advertisement. That’s a model 155s baritone and that’s obviously a Modele 22 or 26 ad.
There’s a reason for me taking you through all those models and catalogs. Take a look at this horn.
If you do a 1-to-1 comparison of that horn to any of Selmer’s horns made in 1922 you’d say that they look pretty darn close. Maybe identical. That makes me think that these “early” Selmers were made by Couesnon, not Selmer. I do have a few good reasons: Couesnon was a known stencil maker, Couesnon had models with opposing bell keys and their horns look an AWFUL lot like the various models Selmer put out in 1922.
It’s somewhat possible that these Selmers aren’t Couesnons, but Adolphe-Edward Sax horns. The main way I can support this theory is by saying that Selmer bought the AE Sax factory in 1929. The main thing I can say to shoot down this theory is that AE Sax horns do, at least, have different left-side bell key keyguards. However, that’s not really a significant thing to change if you wanted to.
The question might be asked: “Well, why not say Selmer made these?” I just think it unlikely. According to the Selmer history timeline (sorry; it’s embedded in their Flash history document, so I can’t link to it), Selmer was producing 30 saxophones per month in 1922. By mid-ish 1922, production shifted from horns labeled “Series 22” to those labeled “Modele 22.” This means either Selmer’s production numbers are waaaay off or that official Selmer-made Selmers started at a much later serial number than 1. Indeed, most Selmer serial number charts start at 750 or later. Hey, the “Selmers” I have pictured on this page are in the 600’s.
I’ve also seen one really interesting Selmer-labeled horn that’s definitely a Dolnet. It’s easy to identify because Dolnet used an odd-looking “tuning fork” octave key mechanism (compare the mechanism on the s/n 941 horn to a s/n 9677 Dolnet-labeled horn). “941” is also a Selmer serial number, not a Dolnet number. If it was a Dolnet serial, you’d be going back into the 19th century.
There is one other little bit on the subject of stencils made for Selmer. They still had some made for them as late as the 1950s, as evidenced by this absolutely stunning horn. It’s a Buffet Dynaction.
So, your mileage may vary quite a bit if you’re looking at REALLY early Selmer instruments. I wouldn’t worry about them too much, as I wouldn’t recommend to anyone to rush out and buy a Series 1922, Modele 1922, Modele 22, 1922ish Couesnon, 1922ish Dolnet or 1922ish AE Sax instrument: you’re missing, at the least, a front altissimo F and, in the case of a Dolnet, AE Sax or Couesnon-made instrument, you have the high likelyhood of the horn being high pitch — without the horn being labeled as such.