If you ask most custom knife buyers they will tell you that they “buy what they like”. With a all other considerations being secondary; including the knife’s ability to appreciate in value. That being said what is it that makes a knife appreciate in value. Innovators and innovations will always find their way to the top.
If you look at the majority of the “in demand” work today, the makers of said work have in some way made major contributions to their particular categories of knives. Innovation comes in four basic categories; Design, Utilization of Materials, Combination of “Art” styles and Craftsmanship. Design is composed of both the actual 2 dimensional design and/or the realization of that design in the form of a working knife.
Utilization of Materials is the ability of a maker either to create or work with new materials previously unused with regards to custom knives. Examples of this would be Damascus, Titanium, Carbon Fiber, etc.
Combination of “Art” styles is the ability of a maker to incorporate other art forms in their knives. Examples of this would be engraving, scrimshaw, utilization and incorporation of semi precious gem stones. The maker’s ability to actually do the work is often referred to as “Sole Authorship.”
Craftsmanship goes beyond a makes ability to build a custom knife. This refers to an ability that is recognized not only by collectors but maker’s peers. This craftsmanship is shown in a great variety of styles of knives. This encompasses skills with hand tools, other machines and the ability to incorporate natural materials into their work.
One thing all these makers have in common is they thought “outside the box” when it came to their knife making. Many makers become knife makers after handling a knife and thinking to themselves “I could make that” or “I could do better than that.” However, for a maker’s knives to rise to the level where their knives will appreciate in value; both the artistic and business side has to be explored. Ultimately, the maker’s ability to create “buzz” about their knives will be essential to their success. Prior to the Internet makers were limited in the amount of people they could meet. Knife shows and knife magazines were almost without exception the only way to see knives. While some makers offered a catalog (most did not) they were almost always black and white photos. The notable exception to this was Nordic Knives; they offered color photos with their catalog. The knife shows lent themselves to the strengths of many of the top makers. Confident in their abilities combined with the demand for their knives. Because these shows were such major events and there were a limited number they acted as a sort of filter. The majority of those at the shows were “pre-qualified” as buyers. With the majority of the makers (the same being true today) were part time, they along with the full time makers would enjoy very brisk sales. For the most part there were fewer makers and fewer buyers. Most makers would sell out and have a waiting list…some as much as 6 months to a year! Some of the more in demand makes had longer delivery times than that.
Active collectors have always sought out their favorite makers work. As the delivery times became longer and longer the first rule of economics “Supply and Demand” started to take hold of the custom knife community. As the magazines and knife organizations did their jobs more collectors were introduced to the world of custom knives. Subsequently, the demand for the top makers’ knives increased. This gave way to the “Purveyor”. These were a small group of gentlemen who were contacted by collectors to look for a particular maker’s work or a particular knife. Dave Harvey with Nordic Knives, AG Russell and his “Cutting Edge” newspaper and the man everyone sought out at every knife show…Paul Basch to name a few.
Now in addition to the makers and collectors there was an alternative way to get the knife you wanted and in some cases….right now! Generally this came with a price…called a “premium.” Each maker had their own pricing structure, some gave a discount and others didn’t. This coupled with the “demand” for a particular maker’s work would be figured into the premium. While this concept is by no means new…in the early 1980’s within the widening custom knife market the concept took hold. Custom knife makers for the most part have always had difficulty “pricing” their knives. One of the benefits the makers received from working with purveyors/dealers was in this area. As the makers now had access to something they never did before…pre-approved pricing. The prices that collectors were willing to pay were no longer a “guessing game.” For many makers it was the dealers who showed them what the market would bear. Subsequently, makers would raise their prices rewarding themselves, their collectors and dealers alike.
Next came the “Drawing”! No not a picture but those events that are now common place at every major show in the United States. My first experience with this was in the 80’s watching Michael Walker have a drawing for his knives (usually knife). Anyone who has any experience with sales will tell you “money talks.” It was no difference with the custom knife market. What was starting to happen is certain individuals would start to buy every knife on a makers table. Now you can’t argue with the maker for wanting to get paid for their work. However, those who were second, third, etc. in line were a little, shall we say “miffed.” Not having an opportunity to purchase one the maker’s knives. Once the maker seems assured that all their knives would sell they went to the “Drawing.”
It was at the drawing where one could witness an interesting phenomenon. As soon as someone paid the maker for their knife…there was another person waiting to buy the knife from the individual who was just selected in the drawing. Viola, instant appreciation. This is a regular occurrence at every show that has a drawing. Keep in mind many collectors will have driven or flown for many hours to get to the show to get a knife from their favorite maker. A premium of several hundred to several thousand dollars is not going to get into their way.
For decades the way a maker got to the point where their knives would appreciate in value was to work in anonymity for about 5-7 years. They built a collector base primarily through attending the major shows, word of mouth and perhaps an article in knife or firearms magazine. Then after 10 years they became an “overnight sensation” or so it seemed.
In the late 1990’s the custom knife market was introduced to the Internet. Subsequently, custom knives were taken into the 21 st Century and the rules changed.