Monday, February 15, 2016

Quality Travels The World, A Knife Story

Richard Ben Sapir's last novel, Quest, was built on the fictional premise that the ebb and flow of global dominance was marked by the movement about the world of the Holy Grail. In Sapir's story, this "poorish bowl," the very cup used by Jesus at the Last Supper, was in the camp of Salah ad-Din in 1192, when he broke the back of the Third Crusade.

The Grail then passed to the Spanish around 1492, as they were defeating the Moors and beginning their conquest of the New World. Next it was spirited from Spain to England in 1588, just ahead of the Spanish Armada, whose utter destruction cut short the ascendancy of Spain, and began that of England.

The Grail then remained for three and a half centuries in England, as her course of Empire marched both East and West to encircle the globe. But in 1945, with England at least as crippled as any of her defeated foes, the Grail found its way to the United States.

Holy Grail or no, in the broad historical sweep of nations, religions, wars, and empires, the centers of power, prestige, and influence have moved with time all over the world. So to in the specialized realm of cutlery, the centers of quality that set the standards and dominated production for the whole world market moved in the course of time from place to place around the globe.


In the 18th century, France wore the mantle of "cutler to the world." From Paris came the finest of hand-made knives, while from smaller centers, such as Langres and Chatellerault, came cheap serviceable mass-produced knives in quantities unimaginable anywhere else.

As the French Revolution of 1789 plunged headlong into blood and madness, the cutlery "Grail" was spirited across the Channel to England. There it resided for a time in London, but in the 1820s it established itself in Sheffield.

In that paramount mechanical age, the 19th century, the world boasted many centers of fine cutlery. Yet Sheffield was the unquestioned champion of quality cutlery then, and wore this mantle proudly, perhaps even a little smugly, until the early 1890s. From Sheffield in England, the mantle then passed to Solingen, Germany.


The initial impetus to Solingen's rise had come years earlier, back in 1805, when Napoleon Bonaparte abolished her stifling medieval blade-making guilds. In the following decades, Solingen won dubious eminence in the mass production of low-quality low-cost knives.

But then, when Sheffield's cutlery pre-eminence was dealt its death blow by the U.S. Tariff Act of 1890, the more visionary Solingen cutlery manufacturers were poised to move into the high end of the world cutlery market. Because Solingen combined modern methods with Old World craftsmanship, and with a medieval pay scale, her best cutlery firms could compete and dominate throughout the world, even in the heavily protected American market. Solingen's dominance in this period was shared by the German-speaking knife manufacturers of Nixdorf, Bohemia, the cutlery center of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.


The First World War, 1914-1918, finished off Sheffield as a world cutlery center, though the industry there had been dying since 1890. The war also hurt Solingen, and though this German center remained a major cutlery player, and remains one to this day, the war cost that city her position of world cutlery leadership.

By 1920, the mantle of cutlery leadership was resting firmly on the broad shoulders of the United States. Unlike England and Germany, the United States had a multiplicity of cutlery centers, not just one. The most important centers then were New Britain and Bridgeport, Connecticut, and Walden, New York, but there were more than a dozen significant others.

The United States proudly, if a bit uncomfortably, dominated the world's quality cutlery market through both the boom years of the 1920s and the bust years of the 1930s. But then, in the 1940s, world war came again to the United States. We won the war, but we paid for our victory in many profound ways -- some obvious, most subtle.

One of the subtle costs of our war effort was the sacrifice of our cutlery pre-eminence. Four years of high-volume standardized war contracting purged the very concept of high quality from the minds of American cutlery manufacturers.

GERMANY Revisited

In the early 1950s, in an unprecedented comeback, the mantle of cutlery quality returned to Solingen, Germany. Yet like comebacks in boxing, Solingen's return to center arena was both flukish and short lived. Indeed Solingen's postwar triumph was a victory by default. Sheffield was by then but a memory. The survivors of the American cutlery industry had grown fat and complacent. Switzerland, though in fighting trim, and unscathed by war, was still a bantam-weight in the world arena, due as much to her cutlery industry's specialization as to its relatively small size.

Though herself in decline, Solingen came to dominate the cutlery world of the 1950s both because her English and American rivals had fallen faster than she had, and because the new up-and-comer, Japan, was still fully occupied in clearing away the wreckage of her late ill-starred attempt at empire.


Seki City, Japan, at the threshold of cutlery greatness in the 1950s, was in many important ways similar to Sheffield in the 1810s, and to Solingen in the 1880s. All three had been sword-making centers since the Middle Ages. All three cities had long-established systems of factors and outworkers, in which almost every craftsman was an entrepreneur who accepted low pay as the price both of steady employment and of workplace independence. All three cities first entered the world cutlery market by moving into, and soon dominating, the low end of the marketplace -- with the sure-fire combination of high volume, barely adequate quality, and very low price.

Young people today, weaned on Nikon, Honda, and Sony, perhaps forget that in the 1950s "Made in Japan" meant shoddy and inferior. Back in the 1880s, "Made in Germany" had the same shameful meaning, while in the 1810s -- as real old-timers well recall -- no cutlery retailer would voluntarily admit that his wares had come from Sheffield.


So what does the future have in store? The easy answer would be to look to the countries where cheap knives are made in large quantities: China, India, and Pakistan. Since the 1980s, China has dominated the low-end trade in cutlery, especially in the Third World. Low-quality mass-production is all that is possible in a communist/medieval system where production workers. are are slaves to state enterprises. But as China modernizes her economy, look for more higher quality cutlery -- some of which is already being exported for Dailan (formerly Dairen) in Manchuria, north China's oldest and most sophisticated center of metalworking.

Meanwhile Taiwan, which whatever its politics is culturally part of China, has become a world leader in quality cutlery. A decade ago the island was a minor player at the low end, but today Taiwanese knives are the equal of any.

The SUBCONTINENT and SOUTH AMERICA: Missed Opportunities

The Indians and the Pakistanis, with their ancient sword making heritage, once seemed to have a better chance at cutlery dominance than China. However, bureaucracy and political corruption have stifled the economies of both countries. Moreover Indian and Pakistani cutlery manufacturers, like most of their counterparts in Germany a century ago, don't really believe that there is much of a market for high-grade knives.

Bureaucracy, and the corruption it always brings with it, have also stifled the once-promising cutlery industries of Latin America -- particularly Brazil, Argentina, and Mexico. They will continue as minor players at the low end until their economies reform and modernize.


Oddly, a strong candidate for future cutlery dominance is the United States. Leading the way have been American hand knifemakers, whose numbers now rival the numbers of production workers employed in domestic cutlery factories. Since the late 1980s, a cluster of new and innovative knife factories, mainly in Oregon, have brought rapid innovation and high-tech manufacturing to the higher end of mass-market knives. Most remarkably, several of the old-line cutlery firms in the 'Rust Belt' have been re-invented along the same new-economy lines, and are now making high-grade ultramodern knives that readily find a world market.

Glimmers of a similar renaissance can be seen in central Europe now, with flexibility and rapid innovation now characterizing the once-staid knife manufacturers of Germany and Switzerland.

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