Variations On A Theme


Knife Collecting Is Different For Everyone. Some Folks Like To Stick With A Theme And Collect Everything They Can.

It’s all about perspective. 

Everyone agrees that knife collecting is one of the greatest enterprises around. However, there are variations on a theme—if the collection even has one. Probably the biggest variation on the common thread of knife collecting is the existence or absence of a theme, a focus on the collection that revolves around a specific aspect such as an individual custom knifemaker, group of makers, handle material, style of knife, period of time—well, you get the idea.

Theme collecting has its followers and its detractors, and gaining insight into these points of view enriches the collecting experience. First, however, there is a single universally accepted piece of advice regarding the knife collecting adventure: collect the knives that you admire, enjoy, and make you feel good!

“When it comes to collecting, and I mean collecting anything, I think the first rule is to collect what you like,” related long-time knife enthusiast and collector Chris Schluter. “At the end of the day, whatever it is you’ve been collecting might not be worth anything except to you. The collection may go down in value, be obsolete, your kids may not care about it, etc., etc. Collect what you like and can afford. Having fun while doing it is a plus, too!”

Collector J.T. Oldham agrees. “My short answer is to collect what you like,” he said. “I’ve been to enough knife shows and have spoken with many collectors, purveyors, and dealers over the years, and that has been a prevailing sentiment. Collect what you like, with a focus on an element that is interesting or unique.”

Embracing Theme Collecting

If Chris Schluter’s collection of Bob Terzuola tactical folders isn’t comprehensive, it’s the next best thing.

Beyond the “like,” there are those collectors who find a theme and enjoy it for decades, buying, selling, trading, and thoroughly embracing a style or feature. Then it’s always possible to change course, switch ideas around, and find another path.

“I started out collecting hunting knives,” recalled collector Chris Nolen. “This was due to my love of hunting. Later, I learned at gun shows as well as from informative magazines like BLADE® that there were many styles, as well as usages of the knife. I was drawn to bowie knives. I had been introduced to a professional maker, Jerry Berry of Natchitoches, Louisiana, and he was making my hunters because I had switched from commercially made to custom. I drew out a large bowie and sent the plan to Jerry. He built the knife and my theme changed from hunters to bowies. So, I must say, I recommend theme collecting.”

Nolen’s experience is compelling because his investment in that course-changing bowie began with the basics: a drawing. Therefore, the full experience of owning the knife involved an added depth. Nonetheless, other collectors are drawn to aspects of theme collecting that center on different attributes.

“While I do not necessarily collect thematically, upon reflection I realized that my wife, Marlene, does,” advised longtime collector Larry Marton. “Just to clarify the state of affairs in our home with regard to knife collecting, we have two collections—‘ours’ and ‘hers.’ Her collection consists of small knives, predominantly folders, that are about 3.5 inches open. This collection has been accumulated over the past 35-plus years. The knives were crafted by some of the finest knifemakers of our time, both living and unfortunately passed. Marlene convinced each one of them to make her a unique knife, even though most had never made a knife that size before and most would never make one of that size again.”

Oldham takes a long look at trends and depends on the assessments of those close to the industry. “Typically, I have always learned of what is trending in the knife community by reading BLADE Magazine. I’m certain most others do as well. Joe Kertzman has been instrumental in keeping collectors tuned into knife trends for years by editing the annual KNIVES publication. I mostly rely on my network of trusted purveyors. They attend most, if not all, knife shows, do the legwork, speak with makers, and have substantially greater buying power than I do. They tend to focus on particular makers, but due to the large volume of knives they come in contact with, might be able to identify a theme before it exists.”

While Oldham doesn’t consider himself positioned to recommend a theme, he readily admits that he enjoys damascus steel and knives that incorporate embellishments in the shapes/look of human skulls. 

His acknowledgment of the variety of theme options presents the general collector population’s point of view well. There is no right or wrong answer when it comes to collecting with or without a theme, but an eye for certain aspects or commonalities among knives can enhance the effort to grow a collection.

Meeting Other Knife Collectors

This reproduction of a Daniel Searles bowie by Mark Banfield is representative of the period bowie repros in Chris Nolen’s collection. (image courtesy of Chris Nolen)

Among the best features of theme collecting is the opportunity to build relationships as collectors and custom knifemakers interact with one another. 

“Within custom knives, I’ve always gravitated toward tactical folders, so I would say that’s my overall theme,” Schluter explained. “Within that theme, most are from Bob Terzuola, then there are a lot of custom Emersons and at least a dozen knives each from Kirby Lambert and Peter Rassenti, and then numerous knives from Sal Manaro, Mark Roe, Shane Sibert, Chad Nell, and others.

“In any business, if a producer and customer have enough interaction they often become friends, and that may be even more so in the knife hobby. It’s often said that you buy the maker not the knife, and this is absolutely true if you really know the maker. Having the theme I do collecting-wise has certainly produced some lifelong friendships.”

For Larry and Marlene, that premise has held true. “Not only is it exciting to craft a special collection,” Larry commented, “but it is a way to get to know the knifemakers very well and to share the ups and downs of technical and artistic challenges with them. Firm friendships have been molded by this endeavor. Accumulating the collection requires patience, as every knife is made to order. Collecting unique knives that are not today’s momentary trend as an investment is risky, although with patience it can turn into reality.”

According to Nolen, the theme approach applies to whatever the collector’s motivation may be: pure enjoyment, investment, or both. Finding the right balance is a part of the journey, and building a collection that leads to personal satisfaction and lasting value is a powerful combination. 

“There are some collectors that look at knife collecting as an investment,” he said, “and I would still recommend choosing a theme and devoting your collection to that theme. Just remember to get the best possible price. One day you may want to sell, and what you thought may have been a good deal may not have been so swell.”

Stick With The Knives You Like

Another example of one of Oldham’s knives with a skull theme is this Brian Tighe folder. “This was a very popular knife and was published in one of Dr. David Darom’s books,” Oldham wrote.

At the same time, beware of the trend that may glow white-hot and then fade quickly. Experience and a good sense of direction help prevent a misstep.

Concentrating on a specific theme will help insulate a collection from a haphazard mishmash of “stuff.”  However, a collector may choose to purchase on more of a freestyle basis.

“If one were to follow hot themes exclusively,” Oldham said, “then one’s collection would be all over the place. I feel that it’s best to acknowledge the arrival of the hot themes, and then follow them to see if they become trends. A good example of this is the tactical theme or style. We can all safely attribute that style to Bob Terzuola and Ernest Emerson. As soon as that was considered a thing, makers like Brian Tighe, [the late] Darrell Ralph, and Allen Elishewitz were all over it, and at that point, I enthusiastically embraced it and they have become a major focus of my collection. They have all taken that theme to the next level, again and again, to the point that they’re now what I consider ‘rock star makers’ and have created their own genre, which I call ‘tacti-cool.’”

“I believe collecting bowies is very popular right now due to the Forged in Fire series on the History Channel,” Nolen observed. “This is not always the best path to take due to costs. A custom forged bowie can be very expensive. Collectors must first make sure they can afford the elected theme they choose. Small custom hunters and even fighters will most likely be less expensive. I made sure that I could cover the expense, but I suggest that any theme collector set a ceiling on the funds devoted to their collection.”

While expense is always a consideration and at times a downright barrier to entry in collecting higher-end or theme-related knives, the collectors are forever in charge. They may scale their collection toward the right value range and gradually, perhaps, increase funds devoted to the theme. A word of caution does address a fear factor—the fear of missing out.

“One thing I will say is that if you focus too much on one maker or type of knife you may miss out on others,” Schluter cautioned. “However, if you keep an open mind, go to shows, are active on social media, read BLADE, etc., you will still be exposed to plenty of other work. That said, the big plus, at least for me, of having a significant focus on a few particular makers is that you can really get to know their work and can also get to know them personally.”

Knife collectors, whether or not they are theme enthusiasts, are continually looking for enjoyment and satisfaction. Choosing the collecting path is part of the fun, so remembering the basics of trust, quality craftsmanship, and collecting what you like will always make the love of custom knives worthwhile.

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  1. Hi Mike.

    This is a great article. I am hoping you may be about to point me in the right direction. My 93 year old Godmother has giving me her late husbands knife collection to sell for her.. It consists of 16 knives. I have NO background in this area and I want to be able to sell them for as much as possible. Is there anyone I should be talking to that is honest, helpful, etc? I would be willing to pay for either advice or a commission for their help.
    Thank you in advance for any help you might be able to provide.
    Mike Benjamin
    Reno, Nevada


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