Monday, March 28, 2016

Trolling for Hate: Only So Much

The Kizer Gemini I have is just superior to the custom counterpart I owned the Laconico Jasmine.

Here is the Gemini:


Here is my Jasmine (really just as proof that I owned one):


Let's just go down the specs:


Jasmine: D2
Gemini: S35VN

Handle Scales:

Jasmine: Flat machined handles
Gemini: Contoured handles


Jasmine: No
Gemini: Yes


Jasmine: Polished Washers
Gemini: Bearings


Jasmine: More than $500
Gemini: $170

This says nothing about the fact that the Jasmine I handled had significant blade play in all directions and the Gemini is air tight.  Assuming that both were made to the same level of fit and finish, the Gemini is still better, and that's before you factor in price.

I have talked about this before, when I referenced Magical Thinking, but here the comparison is so stark.  I have tried to figure out why and then it hit me, especially after a comment by Andrew Lang.  With so many of the custom knives out there they are just not sufficiently complex, innovative, or interesting to compete with production versions of the same knife.  There are, after all, only so many things you can do to a simple framelock flipper.  You can put holes in the handle or work on the blade shape, but in the end, these are changes at the margin.  At some point when you are making minimalist knives, like the Jasmine and Gemini, you run out of ways to differentiate the custom from the production in any meaningful sense, especially when Kizer's fit and finish is so damn good. 

Thus I have come to a point where I think a lot of folks are at right now--questioning whether the horde of titanium framelock flipper midtechs and customs are worth the money.  When you look at something like a Rassenti integral or the Flipperless Flipper you see craftsmanship or innovation.  When you look at some of the more basic custom knives you see something that any sufficiently equipped machine shop can make.  The Jasmine/Gemini happens to be the perfect place to illustrate this point.  Kizer's machining capacities are world class (in the knife world) and Ray's original design is elegant but very simple.  And so it is easy to see how the production can surpass the custom.  Ray might be able to add some flourishes--damascus steel and the like, but there is nothing on any of the Jasmines, even the newer ones with updated features, that Kizer can't do.

I don't think we are at the point where production companies can replicate any custom perfectly.  But its not a matter of capacity anymore, its a matter of profit.  In a world where we can mass produce high complex cars and make things like a Gamma Knife industrial machining capabilities far exceed even the most complex custom designs.  The thing holding production companies back from making perfect replicas of Van Barnett and GTC knives is profit not prowess.  Can they make these uber complex knives and sell them in numbers and with margins sufficient to justify the production?  The answer is almost certainly no.  And so they remain the exclusive property of the custom world.

But this leads us back to the Jasmine.  This is not a complex knife.  It is much less complex than a GTC or a Van Barnett.  And it is orders of magnitude less complex than your iPhone.  Compared to high end computers or medical equipment is almost impossible.  The issue with a production version of the Jasmine is that there is not much to do.  Its not hard to make a perfect copy (or better) of a knife as simple as the Jasmine.

And there are a tidal wave of customs that fall into this category--relatively rudimentary knives that could easily be made on production scales without diminished quality.  As the hobby expands, the number of makers increases, but the skill necessary to make the GTC/Van Barnett level knives occurs at the same rate (this is true of almost every scarce resource, scaling up grows the overall number but keeps the ratio the same).  When the boom busts its these newer makers that will suffer the most.  The Ron Lakes and Michael Walkers of the world will always have an audience.  Folks that are pumping out one titanium framelock after another with only minor cosmetic differences won't survive.

This isn't to bash Laconico.  I love the design of the Jasmine, even if my personal example was lacking and it has since been updated.  As a production knife the Gemini is easily among the best blade released in 2015.  Ray Laconico has talent, there is no question of that.  But his talent might be in design more so than innovation and building.  My issue is that the knife community obsesses with new makers regardless of their skill.  There is no real assessment of custom knives, but brutally harsh criticism of production blades. And there is, for some odd reason, a gag order on criticizing custom knives and custom makers.

Any ideas why?  

Jonathan, is this enough of a spur?  Let's do the debate series.


  1. I've got my popcorn, and I'm just waiting for the incoming comments about the "narrative" behind the maker.

  2. This is why I'm almost entirely uninterested in custom knives. I can get knives that interest me enough from production companies for a much better price, allowing me to buy more of those knives(or other gear). There are customs that are at an accessible price point(Jarosz JFS comes to mind) but for those of us on a budget those are rare. I'm definitely looking forward to reading this discussion.

  3. For the collector, I guess I understand the opposing "narrative". I own the Gemini and I am not a collector. It is on the upper end of the $ scale for me as a user knife as I carry mine almost everyday. I'm not sure how the Gemini could be improved, functionally, by a custom knife maker. I realize it's a copy but that doesn't detract from its beauty or function. I can afford to purchase a more expensive knife, if I chose, but for the life of me I can't imagine a scenario where it makes sense. Looking forward to the discussion by those who do....

  4. I strongly agree. And I think this is actually the real reason behind the rise of the midtech folder. I think you're seeing many knifemakers realize, consciously or subconsciously, that what really stands out about them is their design talent and that machining technology has gotten ggod enough to replicate their craftsmanship. I think Reate is an even better example than Kizer and I think we're on the cusp of independent knife designer becoming a new and viable career path.

    Before all this if you wanted to design knives you either had to work directly for a knife company, send a company your design concept pray they found it realistic and compelling and even then just get paid on a freelance basis, or bite the bullet and make your own.

    But now with OEM like Reate, Viper, Kizer, Chad Nichols, etc. combined with crowd funding websites, it's suddenly totally realistic to show off your design chops, build the hype and capital to have a run of your knife made and sell your design in your name without trying to match EDM and CNC precision by hand in your garage.

    1. I'd also add Spyderco as a great company with whom to work as an independent designer. I can't remember which one but the designer(who isn't well known yet) of either the Ouroboros or the Introvert basically just sent in a design or a prototype and they went from there. And that doesn't even touch on the many collabs they've done with more well-known designers.

  5. I agree. I've always liked some of the custom makers but I can't really justify the cost difference. I have a Leatherman Signal in my pocket that cost less than $75 and, at least in my mind, seems to be a more complex build. I realize there is a cost differential in materials but it's it's not that significant. I think this viewpoint may be a significant factor in the eventual reduction of custom makers. The custom market used to be a very niche market in flashlights as well but the increase in performance at a reduced price has almost killed the perceived difference so a custom maker now has to really stand out. I believe knives are headed there too.

  6. I suppose it's the money thing in answer to your question. When people are spending that much there is a need to justify it. Then you get the hangers on who work on the principle that if it costs that much and people are paying it then even if I don't or can't own one, the price must be justified and as I would like to be seen as the kind of person who can buy one or aspire to buying one, I feel the need to justify and defend.

    In any case, good luck to the custom makers. If they have created and are able to exploit a niche and those willing to pay the price to differentiate themselves from the crowd, good for them. I hope it means they can live securely. There is no monopolization, we are not in any stopped or priced out of buying knives as utilitarian and useful so why not? Let the internet keyboard warrior fanboys get excited, let the collectors collect and the rest of the world having done their due diligence will buy Gemini's or equivalents and be happy knowing that they are not lacking anything. It's a golden age.

  7. Even now, if you have a rudimentary knowledge of CAD software, a knife design, and some materials, you can walk into a manufacturing collective and walk out with a prototype. You don't need to be a knifemaker. You don't even need to be a machinist. And as additive manufacturing improves and becomes more affordable the barrier to knife design falls even lower. Personally I think that's great, but in an industry as willfully anachronistic as knifemaking there will always be makers who need to perform every step 'by hand' and buyers who value that.

  8. You're completely correct when you say that there's "no real assessment of custom knives, but brutally harsh criticism of production blades." I completely disagree with the "if you don't like it, don't buy it" platitude that people throw out to stifle criticism.

  9. The user base for the knife industry is evolving to the point where there are many people happy to spend more money. Used to be every time I get the urge to buy an expensive knife, I would try and find a custom first. Either the sites were low budget or gave an air that the maker might not be taking orders (often the sales page has this as a header/footer - pretty much saying "Hi no new customers until 2018) or they would simply not ship outside US. Some you have to wait six months to a year. It all just seemed like a risky place to put 300-500 dollars. So I turned to high end production blades and never looked back. Costs less with better materials. The custom industry will always exist to please those who really want the one offs, but I just seek the ultimate end user experience, even if it isn't as 'special'.

  10. It's a bit funny to me that you write this. You, Tony, or more correctly this blog, are/is the reason I now own custom knives. When I found this site some 3 years ago I didn't know there was such a thing as big name "custom knife makers". You introduced me to the name Steve Karroll. Downhill from there. I do agree with the sentiment of the article though. As I excitedly unwrapped my most recent custom, my wife asked me "so, is it worth it?" And I honestly had to reply to her, that "none of them are." Large volume material purchase power, laser and machine level quality control, and cost margins born by large manufacturers ensure that. The likelihood is that I will keep the customs I currently own. All of them were received direct from makers, so I had input into their creation. Some of those makers have become more than just makers, they are people whom I have gotten to know and have friendships with. But really, my users will be productions from here on in. They can't be beat for value\quality. I did finally get a lightweight EDMW from Steve though.

  11. Oh crap, now I'm really on the spot!

  12. Just got a Gemini this week and I am very impressed. Hard to imagine any custom being more refined than this.

  13. Just wanna ask you guys that just gotten the Gemini.
    Am I right to say that the latest version no longer has the "Ray Laconico" inscribed on the blade spine?