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September 12, 2011

by J. Bruce Voyles

There’s an old joke about a man going to heaven and being guided by St. Peter by various rooms in which the different religions are assigned. When they get to one particular room, St. Peter instructs the man to tiptoe by that door. He does, and then asks St. Peter why. St. Peter responded, “Well, they are [naming a rather dogmatic Protestant branch]. They think they are the only ones up here.”

The knife business is a lot like that. The custom makers segment themselves into forged and stock removal. The tactical guys shy away from art knife people. Vintage knife sections in knife shows have been referred to as the “rusty blade” section, despite knives being bought and sold in that section for comparable prices with the finest handmades. Some modern knife enthusiasts obsess over this steel, or that handle material, and marvel at a new design—when that design was produced in the 18th century, but they have not studied the older knives, so they don’t know that.Some internet marketers seem to think if they have a Web site, there is no longer any need to advertise, attend knife shows, or interact with knife collectors who are not active in an internet knife forum. But there is a secret in the knife business that I feel I must reveal here: We are not alone! There are those among us who crossover into other knife specialties, and despite what the Web-savvy would have us believe, there is a large market of knife collectors who are not on the internet.

I’ve been fortunate to have been exposed to a wide variety of the various knife specialties. At times I’ve assembled award winning vintage knife collections, and at the same time, run a retail knife shop, a knife mail-order business, written books on knives, published and edited knife magazines, produced knife shows, and been an active participatory member of regional and knife organizations. I auction knives. I’ve served on the board of directors of the Antique Bowie Knife Collectors Association, taken classes at the ABS’s Bill Moran School of Bladesmithing, visited knifemaker shops since 1977, and attended most (if not all) major knife shows. In the course of my travels over the years, there are less than a half-dozen comrades who have crossed those same boundaries.

In recent years, a few knifemakers have crossed the aisle from the handmade section to the vintage knife section in search of patterns they can recreate, and knifemakers were one of the heaviest markets for the “Antique Bowie Knife Book,” as makers sought patterns there. But those examples are exceptions.

In my 30-plus years of buying and selling knife collections, I’ve discovered it is commonplace to find a few commemoratives and a handmade or two in what was reputed to be an exclusive vintage collection. Same way with handmade collections—there always seems to be a partially filled roll of factory, vintage, and commemorative knives in the assemblage. The percentage was  usually 90 to 95 percent in the collectors specialty, with only 5 to 10 percent non-related.

I have lectured to anyone who would listen that a knife person is a knife person—no matter what his or her specialty. I contend a vintage knife collector is a likely prospect to  buy a handmade knife if the knife is made to appeal the collector and can apply his or her collecting criteria to that knife as well. Vice versa for handmade collectors adding fine vintage knives and Bowies to their collections for the same reasons. This industry has had distinct lines since the beginning, but for the first time, I’m seeing those lines as blurry as they have ever been.

I was pulling knives for shipment in a recent auction in which a broad range of knives was offered. As I sorted, I began to notice a trend: Knife collectors I knew who usually only bid on vintage knives had won bids on a few handmades. Custom knife collectors were picking up vintage knives. Nearly everyone was active on the modern knives.

It could be supply and demand of knives within collectors’ specialties that forces them to step outside their boundaries. Or, it could be something as simple as broadening their approach to appreciating fine knives, no matter what their origin.

No matter the reason, the impact to the knife industry as we know it is substantial, since it indicates a doubling of a dealer or knifemaker’s potential customers without going outside our own community.

The customers are there. But like all markets, the customers will come first to those who go after those customers. Dealers who only attend knife shows for sales have to go after the internet. Internet dealers cannot afford to ignore the traditional markets of knife shows and knife-magazine readers. Knifemakers have to go after vintage knife collectors who will crossover. Vintage dealers have to start buying and selling handmades as a part of their standard inventory.

A few are already going after the obvious markets, and they will thrive from this new trend. Those who choose to stay within their boundaries and ignore obvious markets? Well, the market has a way of taking care of those folks, too!

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