Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Selling High End Knives in the 21st Century--New Approaches to a Different Market

Liong Mah is, by any account, a talented knife designer.  Some of his designs have been huge in the custom scene and his collaborations with production companies have all been good, even if a little underrated (the Eraser is particularly good and particularly underrated).


But its the work he has been doing on his own that I think might set a trend going forward.

Leveraging his excellent design sensibilities and modern overseas manufacturing (Reate), Mah has produced a number of knives that offer his unique style, very good fit and finish, and excellent materials.  They have also been used as the foundation for collaborations with knife makers, like Jonathan McNees.  The breadth and range of the designs is not tremendous--yet.  This way of selling knives is new and so I am sure Mah is starting out with safer, more conventional designs.  If the Eraser is any indication, Mah has more than a few impressive designs uncoiling from is muse-enchanted brain.  I, for one, can't wait.

But Liong Mah is not the only one going down this path.  No one less important than knife maker turned reality TV star Todd Begg has embraced this new way of producing knives.  He used to make the Field Grade Bodegas in the US, but since the Kwaiken project went so well, the Bodega line is now made by Steelcraft (an offshoot of Reate).  

All of the folks working for the Custom Knife Factory are doing something like this too--a Chinese company makes all of the parts and the knives are finished in Russia, though I am not sure if that means the maker himself or someone else.  Despite this, their knives sell for prices I would have though impossible only a few years ago.

The Jasmine/Gemini project proves to me that others should go down this route.


Laconico is one of the best DESIGNERS working right now.  His customs, from accounts other than mine, are amazing, but I am not sure how, other than ornamentation, they are superior to the Gemini.  Evaluating his work purely as a design, he is among the best out there right now.  He could go down the Mah route, too, and I and a lot of other people would be very happy.

I have written before that certain makers are destine to always play in the handmade realm, not because of the complexity of their designs, but because their designs buck trends in a way that makes a large production collaboration impossible because of profit margins.  Karroll's blades are so different and distinctive from the majority of handmade knives out there--they are almost always small in a market that basically starts at 3.5 inches.  They are massively thick and with an extreme hollow grind, they are definitely meant to be used (again, something most handmade knives these days seem to look down on like nobles getting snooty because someone has a job).  A guy like Steve Karroll is probably not served by the Mah model--the outlay on the custom designer's end is huge compared to the materials of making a one off, but eventually, with additive manufacturing, I can see the prices coming down to suit even folks like Karroll.


But if costs don't come down there are other ways Steve and those like him could reach a bigger market.  Massdrop makes it possible for custom makers to make larger runs with guaranteed buyers, batching out handmade stuff to lower their time commitments and production expenses while at the same time having much less risk than traditional "custom" sales.  Jesse Jarosz has wisely moved in this direction with his M75 Wharncliffe found here (as of this writing 14 knives have been sold at $545 a piece).  He had previously done well with Massdrop selling his Globetrotter through the enthusiast driven marketplace.  Yet another iteration of this new method of knife sales is the use of crowdfunding sites, which I wrote about here

The way in which Liong Mah and a few others have leveraged their design skills and the high end machining capacities of overseas makers has opened up a new way for folks to sell knives and I think it is an interesting one.  I imagine we will see a lot more people go down this route in the future.  And if this doesn't work Massdrop and crowdfunding sites offer another way to turn good designs in large batches with much less risk than individual makers face using traditional sales channels.  I feel like Mah's model, Jarosz's model, and the precedent set by DPx Gear shows we are in the midst of a huge change in the knife industry.  Its one that is ultimately good for the industry as it lowers the threshold between good designs and final goods. 

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