Friday, December 16, 2016

Customs Gone Crazy, Part II: End of the Boom

Knife News, a great site, recently had this article up on their site discussing the weaker demand for custom tactical knives. Blade Magazine also had a similar article tolling the bell on the custom tactical market in favor of other trends. Finally, a scan of the forum boards selling custom tacticals is one sad thread after another--unsold knives with repeated markdowns. This seems like something I have been talking about for two years. The growth we saw in the past five years in prices for custom tactical knives has been crazy, like tulips-in-the-17th-century crazy. I wrote about this here. We have talked about it on Gear Geeks Live for a long time. Aaron Shapiro pointed this out on GGL 74.

The bottom line is pretty simple--the vast majority of these blades aren't that complex, don't require all that much work, and once the trend passes, look pretty damn ugly. Loveless Drop Point Hunter, these things are not. I could see the pressure playing out at knife shows I attended. Old school collectors, guys with collections of WWII-era Randall's and Case Tested knives, were shaking their heads as they saw yet Hinderer sell for $1,000.

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And then a month later, that same Hinderer was selling for half that, and a few months after that it drop by half again. And the pattern repeated itself over and over again for the new flavor of the month. Borka, Dalibor, Oeser...the list goes on and on.

I was never one to go in with the Butterscotch Club, but I could see what they were talking about. I had seen this happen before in the 1990s when I collected baseball cards. Cards that were actually rare, like 1952 Topps cards, were being pushed aside by rookie cards with bits of foil and holograms on them. People were getting $1,000 for cards of guys that hadn't played five years in the majors yet and cards that there were thousands of coming on the market daily. It made no sense. Then the baseball card bubble burst and the market still is not back to its peak (its clear, like tulips, it never will be as that was a bubble too). The Butterscotch Club's point was simple--if you are a collector you should value rarity, complexity, and top-shelf design. Many of the tactical folders had none of these things going for them.

So I never really strayed into those waters. Other than the Anso Ziggy, which I returned for a full refund, I never payed more than $500 for a custom tactical knife. I had thought about pulling the trigger on four figure knives many times, but I never did. In part (in LARGE part), it was because I am cheap. But there was also this nagging feeling I had "Man, there is no there there." I just didn't get it--what made the Ray Laconico Jasmine an $800 knife?

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Why is it so much more expensive than the production version that runs the same materials (or, in my case, better--S35Vn compared to D2)? The market is finally saying: "We don't get this." I feel more than a bit vindicated.

Then there is this fact--some of the production knives coming out now are better than what 90% of custom makers can make.  I have discussed this all over the place, but its hard to imagine a custom tactical knife surpassing a Rockstead, for example.  The stuff coming out of some of the small batch guys like Millit are incredible.  Reate's Steelcraft stuff is amazing.  ZT's Uber Triples (the 777, 888, and 999) are as amazing as anything I have seen in the custom tactical world.  The list goes on and on. 

The last custom I bought, and probably the last custom I will buy for a long time, was the Scott Sawby Swift.

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To me, this is a horse of a different color from the Dalibors of the world. It is distinctly different from a custom tactical folder. It uses hard to find, natural materials (you know, actually rare stuff as opposed man made Moku Ti). It has a classic design. It is made completely by hand by a person with a very restricted (and lessening) output. And it is a marvel of complexity. Simply holding it in your hand explains why this blade is so amazing. Like a magic trick you see it, but you can't figure it out. Faced with a choice of buying the new flavor of the minute custom tactical or the Sawby, viewing both as a long term collectible (but NOT investment), the choice was clear--go with a classic design, superb craftsmanship, and truly rare materials. Leave the me too, acid/black/stone washed flipper to someone else. It wasn't a tough call and it is almost certainly the right one.

The effect on the market will be swift--there will be a flood of customs out there, ones that are cheap by the standards of a few months ago. But it might be time to buy. I'd wait a few months, maybe a year, and see how far the floor falls. And then, when it is at is low, buy a good knife, something with a nice design (none of these blades, by definition, are complex or contain exotic materials--carbon fiber doesn't count) that you couldn't afford at the top of the market. But buy it because you like it, not because you think it will appreciate in value at a rate that outstrips the stock market (good rule of thumb: if the value of a given item appreciates faster than the stock market and it is not a painting or sculpture, it is probably a bubble.)

The effect on makers will be equally swift. Guys that have table prices at four figures for slab handled titanium framelock flippers with baubles attached will be gone soon. Folks that focus on value or have the talent to make truly great stuff with survive and rise to the top. I imagine that Jesse Jarosz will weather the storm--his pricing philosophy of always being at the bottom of a price range will serve him well (as well his top shelf designs and excellent fit and finish). Guys like Scott Sawby, with truly insane levels of skill, will survive because they produce the exact thing that stands the test of time--well design, useful, and unique items.

Good riddance to the silliness. Now we can get back to knives as opposed to the arbitrage of knife flipping. Remember knives? The things we all love to use and carry--those things. They are great, even if you can't flip them for a cool $1,000 profit. And now that people are sobering up, they are going to realize that there is a whole universe of amazing production knives available for very little money.  Maxamet Native 5 anyone?

4 comments:

  1. The whole idea of a $1000 "hard use" knife is kind of an oxymoron to me. Any knife that cost too much to use for cutting and pulls my pants down if I carry it is not a great design. I'm hoping a few of the high end manufacturers out there take the trend away from tactical folders and start making EDC or gentleman's style blades. I'd love to see what ZT could do in a Dragonfly- or Mnandi-sized knife.

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  2. I've never really understood the $1200 slab-side super heavy framelock tactical skull-bead thing. They're just… silly. Not practical, and — as you note — not particularly complex, either.

    I recently paid $900 for a Lochsa. I'd been on Scott Cook's list for six years. It's S90V, makes my Sebenza look like a Gerber, and it took all of thirty seconds in hand to realize I wouldn't sell it, even if I could have immediately flipped it for $2k. The artistry is simply incredible; the machining is flawless.

    I guess that's why there aren't many Lochsas on the secondary market. And I do expect that the secondary market won't dip below $900, even with this bubble bursting.

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  4. I hate to be super pedantic but you wrote "payed" and the word is "paid"

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