In many ways, we are the story that we tell ourselves. Our past identities are the stories that we negotiate between ourselves and the people around us. Value is a different kind of story. Why value one thing over another at all? Where does hierarchy of value even come from? These questions have been argued by great minds for centuries and we won’t get to the bottom of it any time soon but understanding the power of story can help us find our place in the hierarchy of value. A good salesman understands this. Have you ever heard the saying “He could sell refrigerators to Eskimos”? Now that’s a good storyteller right there. A great salesman can get you to spend more than you intended and walk away feeling good about it. And what’s wrong with that? When it comes to spending money, especially our discretionary spending, how the purchase makes us feel is often the most important factor. Brands prey on this fact.
So we make knives out of wood from a historic tree, the fossils of extinct species or metallic meteorites from the outer reaches of our solar system. We give a knife on a momentous occasion, use a knife for something special or pass a knife down as a family heirloom. Why do knives hold meaning better than other items? Why do they tell stories so well? I believe it is because knives have been our constant companions from the beginning both in our lives and as a species. They are also inherently dangerous and remember about Negative Bias. Like a snake in the grass, we do well to know when a knife is in our presence and exactly where the tip is pointed. Most of the food we have eaten since our birth was cut with a knife. Many of our umbilical cords were cut with a knife. They are extensions of our hands but more importantly extensions of our intention.
History, myth and lore play important roles in the story of knives. Swords are easier to remember in lore because of the dramatic nature of a named weapon owned by a famous historical or mythical figure but knives often play an important role. The climax of the story of Abraham and Isaac occurs when Abraham raises a knife above his head and an angel stays his hand. Joshua used flint knives to circumcise the people of Israel before the siege of Jericho. Countless historical figures have met their end at the point of a knife including the moment of Julius Caesar’s famous quote “Et tu, Brute?”
The lore around knives is even more interesting. Many people believe in never giving a knife as a gift as it is thought that the knife will sever the relationship. A coin in return as payment is used to avoid this. There is an aversion to crossing the blades of two knives for various reasons depending on culture and there are various protections believed to be invoked by the strategic placement of knives. Stories pass to myth and myth becomes legend. How are the stories of knives influencing us now?
The story may be that “This was your grandfather’s pocket knife” or “Your great grandmother brought this when she immigrated and used it every day in the kitchen”. Some families even have weapons from former generations in the form of swords and knives used on campaign or captured from their fallen enemies. The tales grow in the telling until our great ancestor single handedly saved the world.
The stories carried by certain materials can be especially potent. I have seen knives with handle material of fossilized walrus tooth which had holes bored to make a fire starting tool. Sometimes the best stories are the ones not told. Who made this ivory artifact at the end of the last ice age? What happened to its owner when it was dropped and buried in the permafrost? Should the artifact be kept on a shelf as a curiosity or made into a new tool which can inspire the imagination? Good stories raise questions. Wood from battleships, historic homes or trees where important events occurred is a good way to bring a piece of history into the future but without the story it is just another chunk of oak, destined for the woodstove.
As special as historic items can be, they are often not cherished as much as items of personal importance. I have often had people bring in wood from a family property in the form of floorboards, cordwood or branches. These often take months to season then stabilize but it is worth the extra effort for the family. Of course trophies like elk or deer antler make special handles, especially when it is the first animal harvested or is otherwise significant. Nowadays we are even using fabric in custom made micarta as well as casting just about anything in resin.
So how does the story around our knives add value? Stories act as guidelines for future behavior, they induce curiosity and empathy. Story-selling is a potent form of marketing because it specifically targets how our brains react to certain types of stories. As producers of handmade goods, we don’t need a marketing firm to drum up some dramatic brand story or to create a false sense of exclusivity around our product. They are inherently exclusive and we are actually working to make them more inclusive. The story of our knives is the story of us. Aside from those knives with artifacts glued to them, every knife that we make tells the saga of our own journey. Who we are in our community and what our place is in the greater family of artisans and craftsmen. Get your story straight, make it clear and accessible. Don’t lie. It’s more interesting than you think, and it grows in the telling.