Staying a Step Ahead of the Profiteers

Gubbart staff reports and views: Mike Lee on the narrowing playing field…

In the realm of 3-D art, including usable creations such as a handmade knife, there is always the possibility (likelihood) that a sort of rambling free marketplace tragedy will follow the first act in which the artist hits a popular nerve among the buying public and enjoys a moment of success. Marketplace actors without the commitment to art but with a commitment to profit uncork their connections in the next act. And as this natural-unnatural plot runs its course, the scenarios twist and turn. Until, at the closing curtain, we see the artist’s work transfigured from a one-of-a-kind piece into mass-produced merchandise. 

Of course, the copying is a form of flattery, if that makes anyone feel any better.

Except in rare cases, the artist doesn’t reap any of the benefits of the knockoff market. That probability increases if the manufacturer is in a location that doesn’t honor intellectual property. Of course, if the maker has a big name in the field of endeavor, he or she will enjoy a brand of immunity since collectors/buyers will always want some of his or her fame. But if the maker was an every(wo)man enjoying a nice niche market that was a direct result of the unique approach investments of labor, materials and time, he or she can kiss that work-ethic approach to success bye-bye.

And here’s perhaps the most hurtful impact to artisans everywhere of this common occurrence: the mass produced replicas are often dang good.  Well, at least good enough so only the brave- or fool-hearted would try to compete toe-to-toe. Look at this page from a popular knife outlet. What you see are npage caltatlogice looking, well appointed fixed-blade knives, some with stag handles and bolsters, and others with fancy stacked bolsters, and all with damascus steel blades. For those who don’t know the draw of damascus, if done by hand it is a labor intensive process involving stacking and welding different steels and sometimes other metals in a forge and then drawing them out though hammering in artistic patterns into a bar from which the maker subsequently fashions a blade or entire knife. Five to seven years ago there were knifemakers who took the time and beating necessary to make damascus and the marketplace rewarded their efforts. Those who didn’t make their own damascus could buy it from a small number of sources in knife-ready bar or tube from, at a price of at least $10 an inch. Yes, that’s per inch. So an 8-inch knife would have an investment of at least $80 in just the blade materials. Back then, mass-produced knives sometimes featured damasteel, which imitated damascus by a stencil approach on regular steel. Today, the prices are down somewhat for damascus steel (as the material is being mass produced) if you can get it in bar or rod form and not in already shaped blades. Meanwhile a maker can still pay over $15 an inch for top-quality damascus steel. Of  course the mass-produced damascus is not of the same quality or beauty of the very desirable designer brands, but it ain’t bad either. Remember, these manufactured knifes also are usually well assembled, come with a handle of nice natural materials, other beauty features and a leather sheath…and sell for under $50.

For those who were enjoying the fruits of their hard labor in any of the 3-D arts, and were subsequently chewed up in the commercial marketplace, what is the next step? Do they keep on keeping on and try to buck the machine, or create a new market with a new approach?  Not sure what’s the best answer, but you have to admire either choice.      

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