Loveless’ impact is still felt today.
A week after BLADE Magazine Cutlery Hall-Of-Fame® member Bob Loveless died at age 81 on Sept. 2, 2010, Los Angeles Times reporter Valerie J. Nelson wrote a lengthy story on the man who sold his first knife to the Abercrombie & Fitch sporting outfitter for $14 more than 55 years earlier.
Nelson wrote that Loveless “made some of the world’s most coveted sporting cutlery by refining knife design to high art.” These succinct words convey a glimpse of the influence this giant in the cutlery industry wielded during his lifetime. In this 50th anniversary year for BLADE®, his legacy stands tall among those who have dedicated their lives in building the knife industry to what it is today.
Truth is, there’s scarcely an aspect, nook or cranny of the knife business that Robert Waldorf Loveless did not touch during his lifetime. He was forthright, sometimes gruff and always prone to speak his mind. During an interview for BLADE, he once asked this writer what the tapping noise was that he heard in the background. When I responded that it was the keys clicking as I was taking notes while we talked, he bluntly asked, “Can’t you remember anything? Why can’t you just listen?”
Loveless’ Defining Designs
No matter. Loveless was articulate, extremely intelligent and deep down passionate about art in knives. Cutlery Hall-Of-Famer Bruce Voyles knew Loveless and respected him for what he was.
“The thing about Loveless is he made a knife with eye appeal,” Bruce observed. “It was different, and a lot of people don’t understand why, but it was [his use of the] natural French curve. It was the design appeal.”
True enough, Loveless was a master of design. He had actually studied briefly at the Institute of Design in Chicago in the 1950s, and was a student of the Bauhaus Movement, a cultural and artistic design wave that peaked in the mid-1930s, something of a North Star, a muse if you will. Its dictum: Form Follows Function.
Longtime Loveless authority John Denton told reporter Nelson, “He is pretty much the Picasso of the knife world and the father of 20th century knifemaking. His design is what made him famous.”
Dave Ellis, proprietor of Exquisiteknives.com, agrees.
“Going back to the 1950s, Loveless has been instrumental in perfecting some of the more common traits found in contemporary knives,” he related. “The dropped hunter is probably Bob’s most emulated design, although the Archer chute, sub-hilt fighter and more show that Bob did not rest on his laurels. When a smaller, carry-sized fighter was called for, Loveless came up with the New York Special.”
Denton recalled the Loveless willingness to revive and reintroduce design and construction concepts that caught hold in modern times and energized new frontiers of imagination and artistry.
“He was not the first to use the tapered tang,” John explained, “but he found out about it from an old knife made in the 1850s that was given to him by Billy DuPont of the DuPont family. Loveless brought it back into the modern world with the tapered tang taking the weight out of the knife. Bob said, ‘It has to look so good you want to pick it up and feel so good you don’t want to put it down.’”
According to Denton, Loveless also brought the brass wrap handle, hidden pin, two-tone pins and half tang into play.
Design achievement crowns Bob’s career, but there was so much more to him—so much that attempting to compile a summary of his contributions would require more space than this publication might allot in another half-century.
Voyles commented, “I always liked him because he could sum up a complex subject in a sentence. He and I visited one time and I would throw out topic after topic, and he would snap back a quick response. When you left him you knew you left somebody that was phenomenally intelligent on a variety of topics, but that doesn’t mean he had social graces.”
One of Bruce’s favorite Loveless memories was Bob’s rationale during the controversy that raged within the Knifemakers’ Guild as to what truly defined a handmade knife. Loveless liked Jack Daniel’s, so Voyles and Cutlery Hall-Of-Famer Dan Delavan bought a 1.75-liter bottle of Gentleman Jack whiskey (Single Barrel wasn’t available at the time) and presented it to Loveless at his home in Riverside, California.
“I said to him, ‘I hope you will accept this gift in the spirit in which it is intended,’” Bruce smiled. “He laughed and put the bottle on his shelf. Then we sat down and asked him what he believed to be the definition of a handmade knife. We videotaped his answer. He said, ‘I wish I had a machine that I could dump handle material, steel and pins into, and then a knife would come out the other end, boxed and ready to send to somebody. So, make your knives any way you want to. The marketplace will sort you out soon enough.’”
Simple, straightforward and wise.
Bob’s Impact On The Industry
Loveless played a pivotal role in the genesis of knifemakers’ organizations. He was a founding member of the Knifemakers’ Guild and a pioneer with the California Knifemaker’s Association. He was a staunch supporter of knife shows, bringing people to the events just with his mere presence. According to Ellis, Bob regularly attended the Guild Show, BLADE Show, Solvang Show, California Custom Knife Show and Phil Lobred’s Art Knife Invitational
Loveless also brought along younger knifemakers, working with them and offering advice. A few include Jim Merritt, D.F. Kressler, Yoshihito Aida, Cutlery Hall-Of-Famer D’ Holder and Steve Johnson. Bob’s style and artistic interpretation live on in part with the work of these incredible craftsmen.
“Many a maker is in debt to Bob Loveless for the support, counsel, corrections and guidance that he gave,” Johnson said. “He was a true friend to those who were genuine and sincere with him, and the relationship that they had with him. Bob, as we know, was outspoken and quick to correct what he felt was not right or smart, which led to some loving him and others not, a bit like Ed Henry—love or hate—but both were so very good to me personally!”
Loveless was an innovator in the aspect of materials as well, including 154CM stainless steel and the introduction of ATS-34 from Japan, while also popularizing Micarta® as a handle material.
Ellis commented, “Loveless pioneered the use of many of the common steels used today, especially 154CM. The shop was able to purchase such quantities that Bob could pretty much order what he wanted. The favorite handle material of the Loveless shop was green Micarta.”
Johnson remembered, “There was a stack of 154CM steel lying in the driveway at 4319 W 187th Street [the address of the Loveless shop] the day I first walked in. Bob mentioned that he was excited to get some blades done and heat treated right off. Green canvas Micarta was set in stone as the best handle material in Bob’s view. It’s still right up there on top and is used by many a maker. It’s because of Bob’s legacy that this happens.”
A lasting dimension of the Loveless legacy was his bridge to Japan, as well as his overtures in the European markets.
“Bob was deified to the extent that every Japanese knifemaker included his designs among their offerings,” Ellis explained. “Bob was an icon in Japan, and to this day many of the top makers in Asia have Loveless designs in their repertoires.”
Voyles commented, “Bob went over there and showed the Japanese how to make good knives. I went to Japan in 1981 or ’82, and in every factory I went to there was a picture of Bob Loveless and the factory owner. The thing was that Bob’s wife, Yoshiko, was Japanese, so he didn’t have a problem with the language barrier, and he went to Japan to show them how to make knives that appeal to Americans.”
Loveless used his connections to make things happen, and Voyles credits him with the evolution of the folding knife among Japanese manufacturers, as well as a surge in the Japanese collector market.
“Bob didn’t make folders and the Japanese wanted folders,” Bruce recalled. “He had worked on a design with Jess Horn, and Bob put Jess and Japanese collectors in touch with each other. Horn also had a series of folders that he patterned after the old Remington Bullets. When Japanese collectors discovered that, their market for vintage Remingtons went straight through the roof. Loveless sowed the seeds in the 1990s for the collectibility of vintage knives in Japan.”
Today, a Loveless knife is a collectible phenomenon in its own right. Name the year, name the mark on the blade, name the style and the materials, it will sell for astonishing dollars. Denton has noted some models made in the 1970s that sold for $400 then and have reached the rarefied air of $100,000 or more in recent years. The power of Loveless pricing simply takes your breath away.
Bruce is quick to add that Loveless was professionally unselfish. “If you wanted to make a style of his knife in your factory, that was OK,” Bruce noted. “Just ask him.”
The pervasive Loveless influence stretched far and wide, from the custom knife shop to the factory.
“His designs for and collaborations with Schrade, Gerber, Lone Wolf and others, and the factory knife market in general, were significant,” Ellis recalled. “Early on the astute factories were taken by Loveless designs and made limited editions in dropped hunters and others. These days factory collaborations are quite common, and you can thank Bob Loveless if you want to give credit where it is due.”
When Sports Illustrated called Loveless for an interview in 1980 and the magazine published his words in the same edition that featured tennis superstar Bjorn Borg on the cover, the impact on the entire knife universe was transcendent. When asked why so many people considered his knives “better” than those of others, he mused, “A knife is an extension of your experience. And I’ve had more experiences than most people. There’s more character running in my veins.”
For those who knew Bob, just the knowing was an unforgettable experience. His contributions to his present and to the futures of others in the knife industry remains incalculable. And so, the longevity of a man does not reside in his years on Earth, but in the perpetual remembrance of his ideas, his workmanship and his innovative perspective on the world.
Therefore, it can be said that when Loveless left us he did not go gentle into that good night. He did not fade away. He didn’t drop the mic. He handed it to those with the foresight and the intestinal fortitude for the days to come. Now, what do we say and do? Loveless might grouse. He might gripe. But he just might also manage a grin.
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