A Bit of Taxonomy

The Knife World is a place with many islands, small pockets of interest isolated from each other.  In some ways, these pockets are more related to other pursuits than they are to each other.  There is and was a great debate over what constitutes a custom knife,  which, thankfully, is no longer as important as the midtech trend seems to have died.  I took a stab at creating a more coherent way to refer to midtechs and customs, but as with all things related to language, use, not logic, dictates the form.  

There is another distinction, one that I am more interested in, but its much harder to define—the line between styles of knives.  Here I am not references hard use v. EDC or tactical v. survival knives, but something that strikes at the heart of collecting knives.  In the EDC community, for most people, the universe of knives ends with a well done Todd Rexford custom (Rexford is really a stand-in here for any high end knife maker working the custom tactical style...it could be anyone really, take your pick; I just chose him because everyone knows his work).  Beyond that is the knife world equivalent of the undiscovered country or that place on old maps that is marked “Here Be Monsters.”  In reality, there is a echelon of knives beyond the Rexford, both in terms of price and rarity.  Its not to say that a Rexford isn’t nice, they are wonderful knives, but they are the Corvette to these other knives Ferrari.

The animating force behind this post was a long conversation with one of the country’s foremost experts on collectible cars.  Its clear that there is a dividing line in the car world between classic American cars, which sell for millions, and classic Italian cars which sell for tens of millions.  No car, even in private sales, has topped $100 million, but it is likely that when that happens the car will be a mid century Ferrari.  With that in mind I thought it would be interesting to take a look at the the four tiers of knives in terms of collecting.     

Tier 1: Production Knives; $1-$300

This is a Spyderco Spydiechief with rust proof LC 200N steel.

This is a Spyderco Spydiechief with rust proof LC 200N steel.

These are knives sold in blister packs at Big Box stores or online by the tens of thousands.  By in large, these are the knives most people think of when they think of knives.  The Spydercos, Benchmades, and the knives I usually review fall into this category.  In some very rare instances limited run versions of these knives can be expensive.  The Horn Spyderco or the Klotzli Walker Spyderco for example, started out as nice production knives but now sell for hundreds or even a thousand dollars.  One particular Case knife, which is clearly in this category, sold for much much more.  I’ll discuss that below.

Tier 2: Small Batch Production Knives; $330-$2,000

This is a Chris Reeve Mnandi I used to own in Snakewood.  

This is a Chris Reeve Mnandi I used to own in Snakewood.  

This is a land of more refinement and it starts with the progenitor of the small batch knife—Chris Reeve.  Without the Sebenza making it “reasonable” to spend $330 on a knife, none of these knives would exist.  Here we are looking at things like the Sebenza and its brothers, most William Henry knives, Reate knives, Millit knives, and Rockstead stuff.  In my mind, the Rockstead stuff is the upper limit of what production knives can be and they are amazing.  

Tier 3: “Custom” Knives; $500-$10,000

This is my Jesse Jarosz M75 with gray G10 handles, a liner lock, and AEB-L blade steel.  It was one of a few with a sculpted clip.

This is my Jesse Jarosz M75 with gray G10 handles, a liner lock, and AEB-L blade steel.  It was one of a few with a sculpted clip.

This is the place where most of the IKC thinks the world stops.  I am fairly comfortable here and I like a lot of the stuff in this part of the market.  Lucas Burnley, RJ Martin, Todd Rexford, Deryk Munroe, and the like lead the top end of this part of the market and their stuff is quite nice.  I am also very smitten with the traditional knives in this part of the market, stuff by TA Davidson and others.  J. Oeser makes some stylish blades in this tier, as does Enrique Pena.  Its not all that different mechanically from stuff found in the first two tiers, but it is vastly better made, or, when it is of equal quality, it is all done by one person, usually by hand.  Higher priced knives in this tier are marked by the use of unsual but not exotic or rare materials.  Premium grades of carbon fiber and various types of damascus are used including titanium and zirconium blends.  

Tier 4: Art or Collectible Knives; $3,000-$1,000,000

This is my Scott Sawby Swift with bank note engraving by Ray Cover.  Lock is Sawby's Self-Lock, handles are koa, and the blade is mirror polished CPM-154.  This is as close to an art knife as I will probably ever get. 

This is my Scott Sawby Swift with bank note engraving by Ray Cover.  Lock is Sawby's Self-Lock, handles are koa, and the blade is mirror polished CPM-154.  This is as close to an art knife as I will probably ever get. 

In talking to Sharp by Coop and in preparing for that podcast and the episode with Michael Walker, I took a deep look into this most exclusive of islands in the Knife World—art knives and collectible knives.  While they sometimes overlap, Art knives are really something different in the knife world—the ultimate level of refinement.  Collectible knives are a bit different—they are not expensive because of how well they are made but by how rare or historically important they are.  

The first and most distinctive difference between the third tier of knives and art knives is that art knives tend to work in fundamentally different ways from most other knives, especially folders.  There is an element of innovation (and some would say Rube Goldberg) in how art knives open, close, and lock open.  As refined as a Rexford or a Begg is, as much Zircuti as they cram on these knives, they are, for the most part, mechanically identical to production knives.  They use framelocks and flippers or thumb studs.  They are not, like with a Ron Appleton folder, something that barely registers as a knife.

Another hallmark of art knives is the use of actual exotic or rare materials.  Mokuti and its brothers may be expensive compared to G10, but in reality these are manmade materials and we can make as much or as little as we want.  They are not exotic nor are they rare in a real sense, even if they are rarely used on knives.  Art knives generally have materials and adornments that are truly rare.  One collector in my area has a knife from a maker that used a stone discovered in remote Siberia for the first time in the 1970s.  There is a lot of meteorite.  Gold and jewels are par for the course.  Desert ironwood is passe.  Instead the wood used starts at koa and goes up in price and down in availability from there.  

The final mark of these knives, besides their mechanical differences and truly rare materials, is the fact that the materials are complemented by other artistic talents.  While some of the custom knives have complex milling or hole patterns, art knives usually carry well-done engraving or other similar skill-based ornamentation.  There is some skill in getting Damasteel to pop or grinding san mai, but really it is the material doing most of the work to look amazing.  In contrast, or in some cases in complement, in art knives the materials are enhanced by the hand and eye of an artist.  You can find videos on YouTube of folks engraving the humble penny as practice.  The end result vastly exceeds the materials.  Some of Bob Cramer’s kitchen knives have sold for over $50,000 (one particular example sold at open auction on his site for around $68,000) so don’t think that all art knives have to be stodgey, over adorned folders.     

One interesting case is the work of SNECX.  He is clearly working in the custom knife style most of us are used to, but he is adding a level of refinement and complexity that greatly exceed what others are doing.  He is a perfect of example of the semi-permeable barrier between Tier 3 and Tier 4.  Similarly, Charles Marlowe, Deryk Monroe, Scott Cook, and Todd Rexford have produced knives that really start to push the envelope between custom knives and art knives.  This is all to say, that the tiers I have laid out here are more humps on a gradual ramp than stairs on steps.   

There are other knives in this last tier besides art knives.  Bob Loveless knives, of which I have handled two, usually command four or five figures and they do so not because of the complexity of the knife but because of their rarity and the fame of the maker.  Tony Bose knives fall into this same category.  There are also old Randalls and Case knives, specific models or knives, that are so rare and so collectible that they greatly exceed the price of even the most expensive custom tactical knife.  A few years ago a mid-1920s Case Tested sold for a record amount—$14,300.  It is the most expensive production knife ever. 

When rarity and collectibility cross streams, just like in Ghostbusters, insanity happens. When these two strands cross—the art knife and the collectible knife—true knife collecting magic happens.  The Buster Warrenski King Tut dagger is the most expensive knife of all time made in the last two hundred years both because it was an art knife in terms of its level of refinement and because it was from a famous maker.  Michael Walker folders are similarly blessed.  The market seems to have settled on high five figures or low six figures for his knives.   

Beyond the King Tut dagger (and it is two brothers—the Fire and Ice and the Gem of the Orient, all three commissioned from Warrenski and owned by the late Phil Lobred), there are the legendary nihonto blades and other cutlery of historic importance.  In tracking the auctioned sales over the years, I have noticed that its not uncommon for a Civil War or Revolutionary War sword of pretty miserable condition to sell for $1,000 or more.  Some of the finer katanas from unknown or lesser known makers sell for $20,000.  Those from well known makers sell for easily more than $100,000 at auction.  And if the Honjo Masamune is ever recovered, I don’t think it would be odd for it to sell for many millions of dollars, if it sells at all (it is a national treasure in Japan and might be returned to the Japanese government under international rules and laws on cultural artifacts).   

One tip I would offer collectors in an effort to get the best knife for their money, is look at custom makers that work in the art knife style or tier but also sell cheaper stuff.  Charles Gedraitis, for example, can make beautiful art knives, but most of his output now is aimed as a different price bracket.  The result is a knife with amazing fundamentals at a price affordable price.  JW Smith is an even more famous name that has a foot on both islands.  Another suggestion I would make is buy stuff you like.  Having something in the hopes that it appreciates in value is sensible, but if your holding something just for that purpose, get a better ROI and invest in...well...investments.  Banking on cutlery is a risky business.  Finally, try to buck the trends.  If you look at the auctions, stuff that sells tends to be stuff that typifies a design, something that is solid in build and performance.  Gaudy stuff is not necessarily stuff that holds value.  It can be, but predicting which style of gaudy adornments will be popular in the future is very hard.     

I recognize that there is not a clean separation between the tiers and that some customs are engraved and some art knives are just very refined versions of custom knives.  That said, I think it is helpful to remember that when most of us talk about “high end” pieces, we aren’t really talking about the high end, just the high end for most of us.  A nice Rexford is amazing, but in collector terms, there is still a long way to go before you get to the King Tut dagger.