Beasts Knife Set
Stephen shares the story behind the Beasts Knife Set with HIX magazine.
Asked to make a ‘rock’n’roll’ ceremonial dagger for an eminent Scottish landowner, innovative jeweller Stephen Webster MBE was soon reaching for a hematite, stingray skin and some Damascus steel, forged in a Peckham railway arch.
A Scottish client of mine recently purchased a castle in Fife. As you might expect, castle ownership comes with trappings, the first being one's own tartan and kilt wardrobe, the second an armoury to help keep out the English. The go-to weapon amongst a Scotsman’s personal defence options is, of course, the sgiandubh, the concealed dagger worn down the sock to accompany the battle kilt and sporran combination. My brief was to design and make “the most rock’n’roll sgian-dubh ever”. That’s the kind of tight, no nonsense instruction for a bespoke piece that l enjoy the most, although this was going to be the first knife of any description that we had been commissioned to produce.
Combining the Highlands and rock’n’roll’ was easier than one might expect. Without once referencing The Proclaimers or Big Country, I decided Scottish Gothic was the way to go. After all, Fife is not that far from Edinburgh, and that city is almost as gothic as Prague (and I don’t just mean architecturally). The final designs included a carved silver ram’s skull placed at the butt of the handle; as tradition dictates, a gemstone, usually a cairngorm, is to be set in this part of the handle. Sticking with this tradition, but opting for a stone more in keeping with the colour palette, I chose a gun-metal coloured hematite. For the handle itself, I went with a silver core wrapped in stingray skin, a material and technique employed by the Japanese in the making of samurai swords. The skin has a fine, bubble-like texture reminiscent of caviar, and is extremely hard wearing, more so than leathers. On one side of the handle, we in-layed a diamond-shaped panel, completely pave set with black diamonds.
Regarding the blade, I was certain it had to be Damascus steel. This technique requires enormous skill; the steel has to be heated, hammered, folded, then re-heated, re-hammered and re folded up to 50 times, eventually resulting in the beautiful and iconic, contour-like patterning unique to this kind of steel blade. Adamant to keep all production in the UK, I found a forge housed under a railway arch in Peckham where three young guys were hammering the living daylights out of lumps of blackened steel, forming various rough but recognisable blade shapes. This loud, fiery place was exactly what I had been looking for. The young craftsman specialised in making individual kitchen and chefs’ knives, mostly using the Damascus technique. Thanks to the manufacturing technique, the patterning on no two blades is ever the same. As we established the profile of blade I wanted for the sgian-dubh, my pulse started racing, thinking about all the other knives I suddenly wanted to make. Inspired by the nickname given to the unicorn representing Scotland on the British coat of arms, I decided to call this unique sgian-dubh, The Scottish Beast. We engraved the name boldly around the hilt of the handle. Complete with a black stingray sheath, the beast was ready for Burns Night.
A bespoke piece can often trigger a whole new direction of creativity. My trip to the forge had got me thinking about making sets of knives for the kitchen. Knives seem to be the tools that both professional and home chefs feel the most connection to, and therefore offered an opportunity to create some bespoke items. Continuing the theme of beasts, I designed the first set of six knives. Each handle was to be sculpted in bronze, depicting all the beasts that we eat. I wanted to once again employ the Damascus technique. Our job was to sculpt these beasts in bronze as the handles, as it’s this part of the knife that always seem to be on show, proudly protruding from some kind of block next to the hob or sink or on the worktop. I worked with Mark Hix and several of his chefs in order to better understand the variety of blades a professional chef might use. Armed with more input than I had planned for, we made six blades for our five beasts including a meat cleaver, and for the vegetarians a bronze, courgette-handled paring knife. The bronze and steel beast knives have proven to be a great success.
Almost all the sets have been made bespoke in some way for each client. One commissioned all the beasts to be replicated in sterling silver instead of bronze. More often we customise the blades or add completely new shapes, whether for the home sushi chef or even the home butcher..While it may be expensive, the beauty of making things by hand in our workshops, or in local forges or carpenters’ workshops, is that everything can be tailored to the client. Special, bespoke pieces often become heirlooms, frequently outliving the person or people who commissioned the piece in the first place. We have been offering a bespoke service for our jewellery almost since I started the business, 42 years ago, so it’s important that we provide the same type of service to clients for our kitchen and homeware products.
Custom bar tool anyone?
Piece written for HIX MAGAZINE