Jay Fisher - World Class Knifemaker
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I started making gemstone handled knives early in my knife making career, back in 1979. I make more gemstone handled knives than any other modern custom knife maker in the world. This page answers the most frequently asked questions about modern gemstone knife handles, and has links to over 500 photos of my gemstone knife handles.
If you've ever wondered about stone, rock, minerals, or gemstone material on the handle of a knife, this page will probably answer your questions. Thanks for being here!
Your knife was everything you said and more. It was not only beautifully made, comfortable to hold, magnificent
to look at and sharp enough to cut a whisper, it was also well balanced and unlike most fine artwork which you are
terrified to touch for fear that you might damage it, totally tangible. There is nothing like steel and stone for a
combination. It feels better than any other knife I own and I have knives from many other great masters...
An overview from the topic: "Why gemstone knife handles?" on the FAQ page:
I make a lot of gem handled knives. In fact, I make more gemstone handled knives than any other single maker in the world. That's rock, real stone, not the plastic stuff that is made to look like rock and then called "stabilized." That's one of my trademarks. I have a complete professional lapidary shop nested in the knife making studio, and I can start with a two foot diameter rock and cut it down to a beautiful handle, brilliantly polished, and luscious to hold in the hand. Stone is cool, hard, and dense, and the balance is perfect. I love gem for many reasons. It's impervious to all chemicals that a knife might be exposed to. It has a similar coefficient of thermal expansion to steel (since steel is a refined mineral itself) and won't expand and contract and eventually loosen on the knife like horn, bone, wood, plastic, and ivory do. It doesn't absorb moisture, oils, or corrosives that might stay there. It's hard, so it doesn't scratch. Some gemstone can only be cut by silicon carbide or diamond. Gemstone will outlast the knife blade in most cases.
Some people worry about toughness; that is, if they drop it on concrete will it break? The knife blade tip is the most likely thing to break on any knife so you shouldn't be worrying about the handle. But just to soothe your fears, the stones are usually protected in the critical areas by bolsters and the tang, or they are nearly as tough as the blade (nephrite jades, flints, quartzes and jaspers). If the chunk of mineral makes it through the cutting, grinding, and finishing process, it will last on the knife. About two thousand knives over 30 years have proven that to me.
I thoroughly test the stone before using it on a knife handle. I've seen some beautiful rock that I can't use because it's too friable. In all the years and all the hundreds and hundreds of gem handled knives I've made (see about 3000 pictures of them in the CD catalog here), I've only had one small chip reported after a knife dropped onto a stone floor, which was repaired like brand new.
Stone is tough. I had one knife client return a knife to me for sharpening and reconditioning after years of use and abuse. The stainless steel blade was scratched and beaten, but the gemstone handle looked like the first day it left the shop... amazing. And stone is beautiful. Nothing can match the geologic creations of our planet for color, pattern, and texture. One of my complaints about jewelry is that you can only see a small piece of stone, not getting a real feel for the full pattern and characteristics, and you can't hold it. Gripping a dense chunk of polished gemstone and steel in your hand is a wondrous feeling. When you pick it up, it's cool and solid. After you put it down and pick it up again, it's still warm from your hand. The feeling is delicious, the color exciting, the finish glistening.
There are other Knifemakers who work with stone handles, and there is a lot of poor work out there. Guys try to finish the stone without lapidary tools or knowledge and burn and pit the finish. They misidentify inexpensive common stone as valuable, such as telling a client that a piece of serpentine is jade (I've seen this a lot). They might finish a piece without rounding and finishing and attaching the handle properly, that is, with cohesive methods of jewelry bonding. I've even seen plastic rock identified as real gemstone, and plastic amber called "reconstructed" because it has 10% "real amber dust" in the acrylic! Real stone has millions of combinations of play and color and light. It has imperfect lines, seams, and occasionally inclusions of other material. You know it when you feel it, it's cool to the touch (or warm if it's been under lights or in sunshine). To find out if it's real, you can tap it with a piece of steel and it "clicks;" a piece of plastic will "thud." The ultimate test is heating up a needle to dull red, then touching the handle. Plastic will melt and smell, stone will laugh at your feeble attempt to burn it.
I make more gemstone handled knives than any single maker in the world. I can say this, because there is no individual maker of fine custom knives I or anyone else I've ever heard of who has made as many gemstone handled custom knives for as many years as I have. If you think you know of one, please send me that information, as I would love to talk to someone who is as prolific, determined, and crazy as I am! It's funny, the knife listings and magazines will not put this fact in their listings about me, it's as if they don't want anyone to know this. They say things like "prolific maker of gemstone handled knives," not "the most prolific maker of gemstone handled knives on earth." Truth is, I've made about two thousand gemstone handled knives in my career, and you can see over 1000 pictures of them on my CD-ROM catalogs here. You can see over 500 pictures of gemstone handle samples on the links at the top and bottom of this page. So just by exposure and experience, I probably know more about gemstone handled knives than anyone on earth. Does this make me a complete expert? No, for there are new things to be learned by every attempt. I'm constantly exposed to new gem materials, finishing ideas, and processes. I won't live long enough to use them all, but, God willing, I'll try!
Note the white piece of Dendritic Agate in monster rock saw. One of eleven lapidary saws in the shop. the saw does not cut as much as grind. The ground swarf from the gemstone mixes with the special mineral oil to make a slurry of ground up oily rock-mud. From the color of the mud in this photo, I was cutting some hematite or red jasper. It's a messy job! Incidentally, the diamond blade on this saw costs in the range of $700!
I get challenged a lot, usually by guys that think they know a lot about knives but have very fixed and limited ideas of what constitutes a good knife handle. They're set in their opinions, and make it clear that they don't see knives with gemstone handles in mainstream knives, so why would I make them? They'll even go on the attack on forums, posts, bulletin boards, or through other knife makers and in the industry. Why? Because what I do challenges their concepts. The truth is, gemstone handled knives are nothing new, the ancient Persians made them, so did countless other cultures. Stone is the basis for the very first knife, and that alone testifies to its usefulness and even its durability. I think, though, that it's the beauty and originality of the application itself that throws them in a tizzy.
Sooner or later, after having proven myself in over a thousand gem handled knives, even they have to accept the durability, usefulness, attraction, and value of gemstone knife handles. Otherwise, why would I have continual orders for gemstone handled knives, and endless testimonials about the appearance, feel, durability, and value of gemstone handled knives? Why would I continue to make them, and why would clients continue to purchase them at a premium? Through the grace and gifts of God, I pray I may continue to make them into my twilight years, so that others may share in their beauty, durability, and feel.
Most knife makers consider at one time or another making a knife with a gemstone handle. Always on the search for new and exciting handle materials, they may query others about the feasibility, techniques, and tools needed to cut, mount, and finish a gemstone knife handle. Once they find out just how difficult this is, they usually opt for plastics that look like gemstone or decide to stick with the easier to work, more predictable handle materials like wood, horn, bone, ivory, or plastics. The reason is really simple: gemstone handles are harder to properly make and finish than the blade. Makers who have hurried the blade to get to the handle are not prepared to have to invest much more time, effort, and cost into the handle than the blade. Though some makers simply do not prefer the look and feel of stone, they will concede that many of the most beautiful knives made in modern times have gemstone handles, or gemstone components.
Let's start by classifying gemstone. The inorganic earth is composed almost entirely of minerals. Minerals are the basic building blocks of rock, and rocks are usually groups of minerals. Minerals are the purest form of material, and some are elemental, that is, made of entirely one element, such as gold, silver, calcium, or sulfur. Others are compounds that are made of several elements, but are pure in form. This means that they have fixed chemical compositions with minimal variations. These compounds are recognized by mineralogists as standard species. There are over 3500 known species, with as much as 40 new ones being discovered every year! Many of the minerals are combined to form a stone, and ultimately gemstone. An example would be the gemstone lapis lazuli, which is composed of the minerals nosean, lazurite, pyrite, sodalite, calcite, and hauyne. If you examine just one of those minerals: calcite, you'll find it's composed of calcium carbonate: that is calcium, carbon, and oxygen. Click here to see a totally newly discovered gemstone that I've used on several knife handles with the mineral content breakdown and information.
"Gemstone" is the name that we assign to minerals or compounds that we value. Technically, the definition for gemstone is any stone that can be cut and polished and used in jewelry and for adornment. What makes one mineral or rock a gem and one that is not? Whether we value it or not. It is a very loose classification as many rocks that used to be of value are not anymore, and rocks that were of no value are nowadays treasured. There are terms like precious gem and semi-precious gem, and gemrock and rockgem, but these are all rather subjective classifications with tenuous historical significance as viable terms. If someone values it, and it is a rock and it can be cut and polished and ornamentally applied, it is gemstone.
You'll notice on this page that I interchange the words gem and rock. Know that I'm talking about beautiful, hard, polished gemstones used on knife handles. I use the term rock because it is a short, abrupt, and hard descriptive word, and has some weight and punch. I like that!
I received my knives and I can't say enough great things about them.; I was sure I would like them, but they are the finest knives I have ever purchased. My father and brother are going to be ecstatic when I give one to each of them. As for the sheaths, what can I say, they are outstanding. I read on your web site that the pictures do not do the knives and sheaths justice and that about sums it up. They are gorgeous and I can not wait to see my father and brothers reaction when they get them. I am not even sure which one to keep for myself, they are all so unique. Thanks again and I really appreciate how well they turned out. Thanks,
"Some to the fascination of a name surrender judgment hoodwinked."
18th century English poet
In the thousands of years that man has used gem, minerals, and rock in his creations, works of art, architecture, and adornment, you might think that the names identifying each type of mineral or composition of rock or gem is standardized and well-known. This is not the case. Just like the bewildering array of names given to various woods I detail on my Wood Knife Handle Material page, gems, minerals, and rock may be called by many colloquial or popular names, and there is no standard naming system. Just like woods, the only scientific standard is the geologic or mineralogical name. This is not a descriptive term like red river jasper, or tree agate, or sunset stone, or honey Martian landscape graveyard Da Vinci ghost agate. The only standardized terms are mineralogical, like quartz, feldspar, rhodochrosite, dolomite, and magnesite. There are sub-groups of many of the mineralogical species, and there are even rocks that are biochemical or organic in nature, either derived from organic processes to become rock (like flint and chert) or are the direct remains of biological process (like chalk, diatomaceous earth, and coal).
Unfortunately, one may call a rock just about anything he wants, and it is up to the buyer of stone or the professional using the stone (that's me) to determine the exact composition, value, and identity of each gemstone. This, combined with the combination of mineralogical names with additional descriptive and popular names can be confusing. For instance, the obsidian (proper name) known as mahogany obsidian (descriptive name) years ago has become renamed as goldshine obsidian (new descriptive name). The original name mahogany describes the brown streaks that run through this mineral, but this was a rather boring term for a rock, and being compared to wood diminishes the popular culture's interest and value. So many suppliers changed the name of mahogany obsidian to goldshine obsidian, a much more attractive and beguiling name. There are textbooks that even describe these two as separate rocks, and this is an error. Whether or not mahogany obsidian can display iridescent shimmers in bright light depends on the lapidarist's skill and the direction of cut and finish. So the lapidary can make either goldshine obsidian or mahogany obsidian from the same rock, depending on the cut.
I was at a raw rock supplier out in the southwest desert of Arizona, and found some nice jasper with wine-colored reds and a few highlighted golden areas. I asked the seller what this stone was called. With a strong Mexican accent, She told me it was called carbonet jasper. She used a strong accent on the "t" which may be how the word Cabernet appeared to be pronounced when written, particularly if one has never heard the word pronounced. I looked at the wine colors running through the rock and asked if maybe she was mistaken, since the color in the rock looked like Cabernet wine. She got angry with me and insisted that it was called carbonet. I bought the rock anyway, and used the stone on a beautiful knife, the Malaka. Yes, that's Cabernet Jasper, and this exchange shows how tenuous local names for gemstones are.
Since there are such a variety of gemstones and mineralogical materials on our earth, and with new ones being discovered yearly, we must have a way of describing gem and rock for the trade of lapidary. The descriptive term then becomes the popular standard, and those vary depending on location, language used, country, industry, or application. For instance, jasper is described in many ways, because there are so many varieties of this microcrystalline quartz. A common trend is to describe any type of jasper by its appearance alone, and even rocks that are not truly jasper (like rhyolites) are often grouped in this family. Lapidary and gem and mineral interests frequently call rhyolites jasper, but the two are distinctly different. Rhyolites are silica-alumina, and jaspers are silicon dioxide. True jaspers are cryptocrystalline quartz and are known in various trades as chalcedony.
The point is that no matter what the name, it is the appearance, luster, polish, durability, and flavor of the gemstone that is important when used in fine custom and handmade knives. We may call rocks by many names, but it is up the the person who cuts, grinds, fits, mounts, and finishes the stone to reveal it's properties and attributes. The popular name, after all, may change in a few years.
Gemstone is the ultimate natural handle material.
Not all rocks and minerals are beautiful, and some are downright ugly, but gemstones are a special group of rocks that we've valued for as long as man has existed. Perhaps some of that value derives from early man's history with stone tools. Man's first tools: knives and hammers: were stone. Stone is what brought man out of the constraints of the animal kingdom. Stone tools allowed early man to survive on a hunter's high fat, rich diet, which allowed him to migrate into areas too hostile for a previous existence. It allowed man to build better shelters, access more game, and evolve into an agrarian culture. Ultimately, man's tools are what made him what he is today. Think about it: every thing you eat, wear, drive, use and have has at one time been touched by a cutting edge, and the first edges were stone.
Early man also recognized beauty in rocks. Bright, beautiful, unique colors, fascinating patterns, glistening polish, the way light is plays on a stone, waves of interesting differences in texture and form, their heavy, solid, substantial mass: all these things interest man even now. Once-living things were frozen in the rock (fossils), rock was dense, some rocks rare, and some could be carved and polished only with tedious months (sometimes years) and incredible effort. Gemstone was extremely durable, and a fine polish lasted indefinitely. Gemstones were assigned mystical properties and healing powers. Man adorned himself with jewelry, and throughout history, jewelry and weaponry blended into breathtaking works of art. Precious gems became the most valuable items man possessed, and still are, and will continue to be!
I read a statement by a knife dealer in a bulletin board posting once that for about $600, any knifemaker could get into making gemstone knife handles. Since I don't post on forums, I thought I would put down my thoughts and experiences here. That way, the many interested knife makers and artists that read this site could become better educated, and my clients would know just how challenging and rare it is to regularly create gemstone knife handles. This will help collectors and knife users to understand and appreciate just what the are getting with a gemstone handled knife, and illuminate how I work with gemstone.
The first thing that new lapidaries learn is that rock is hard: many, many times harder than wood, and much harder than steel or metals. It takes at least ten times the amount of time to work with rock than with wood, horn, bone, ivory, or metals. Sure, there is some stone that is soft, but it is not durable and does not make a serviceable knife handle. The good gemstones are usually the hardest and toughest ones. They can not be worked on the knifemaker's belt grinder, they cannot be sawn on a metal cutting band saw. The $600 investment to get started in gemstone knife handles is a laughable, gross misstatement, because lapidary requires highly specialized tools, expendables, training, and time-consuming techniques. It requires a lapidary shop, lapidary training and skill, and lapidary experience to know just how to work with stone.
If you're going to block out your own material, you'll need a slabbing saw. The size needed for knife handles is much larger than used for typical jewelry, as knife handles are usually at least several inches long. Know of any jewelry that has three or more inches of rock on it? That's a pretty big brooch! Even the largest solid slab belt buckle is smaller. Slabbing and blocking saws capable of this operation start at about $3500 US, and can cost up to $15,000. I use six of them. The blades alone for these saws start at about $700... that's just for the blade. Even if, by luck, you were able to get a used saw and rebuild or repair it to running condition, it will need a new blade.
Whoops! What happened to my $600? Okay, let's say you only buy already slabbed gemstone. You can acquire it at a local rock shop, or perhaps at a swap meet, and the lapidary has done the slabbing for you. Then the first thing you'll need is a trim saw large enough to handle slabs that are large enough for knife handles. They start at about $1000. I use five of those. A new worthwhile blade for a 10" trim saw of any quality suitable for the size necessary for knife handles will run you $100 or more. You'll need a wet lapidary arbor (I use six of them), and they start at $1200. You'll need drums, wheels, bands, and belts to go through the various stages of processing and finishing the gemstone, and all those expendables will cost a pile. Diamond wheels and silicon carbide wheels are necessary, they run from $50 to $300 each. You'll need several. Wet sanding belts are specialized, and if you go with diamond belts (necessary for many materials) the belts will cost you $75 each, and you'll need one of every grit. Just for the sanding belts alone, you'll need to plop down about $500. Thinking you'll find cheaper ways, used belts, or a faster way to finish rock? That won't happen. You'll also need many various polishing methods, tools, and materials like leather, hardwood, and phenolic custom wheels, diamond carving points, and numerous polishing compounds like Linde I and II, cerium oxide, sapphire powder, tin oxide, rouge, silicon carbide and diamond. These methods and materials are unknown to most knifemakers, and each type of stone finishes differently.
You'll need sealants, specialized epoxies, equipment adapted or created for wet use, waterproof safety gear, splash guards and respirators. All the electrical systems supplying this equipment should be protected by ground fault interruption, proper grounding and waterproof connections, fixtures, and fittings. You don't want to get electrocuted! All this water and oil mist in the shop needs a source and drain, so you need a wet shop. Oh yeah, the oil you need to charge the saws that you blew your first $600 on? It's about $25 a gallon. To charge a big saw takes at least ten gallons.
And what about the material itself? You may get lucky and trade, find, or wheel and deal for rock, but the good stuff is pricy. Some rock is sold by the pound, but many gemstones are sold by the gram... and when you cut it and it cracks because of a hidden flaw, you are simply left with unusable crumbs. Invest in plenty, because it will take a while to learn just what material is worthwhile and what will cause you chronic frustration.
One final thought: This section was written in April of 2008, and you can add 10 - 20% increase on each of these costs per year. Gemstone is going up dramatically in price at the time of this writing, because, of course, nothing cost more to ship than rocks, and the price of gas continues to climb.
The point to this section is to give knife clients and other knife makers who frequent this site a clear picture of just what it takes to start making gemstone handled knives. You can see why gemstone knife handles are a rare and unique find, and knifemaker-lapidaries rarer yet!
I often tell my wife that I don't have to worry about someone challenging my tradecraft of making gem handled knives. If it were easy, everyone would be doing it. It is not. Gemstone is the toughest, hardest, most frustrating material in the world to work with. To work with rock, you must have a complete lapidary shop. I've seen some beautiful stone ruined by guys that think they can work it on their belt grinder (the mainstay of the knifemaker's shop). Gem must be worked with under special oil or water, and never heated during cutting and grinding. It must be cut with diamond saws that run under a special pure mineral oil coolant, and the feed rate and cutting speed carefully controlled. I have a dozen rock saws, from a 24" diameter to a 4" diameter. I also have dozens of small, hand-held diamond saws, cutters and grinders. To shape rock, it must be ground with either diamond or silicon carbide lapidary wheels under water or oil. I use six separate wet grinders for such a task. The finishing of stone is very tedious and sometimes tricky. You must wet-sand with specialized belts (either silicon carbide, aluminum oxide, or diamond abrasives) under water or special oil. To properly finish a rock, it must be ground through ten steps of grade of abrasives, and the polishing method for each stone is different. To polish, I use cerium oxide, tin oxide, aluminum oxide, numerous man made polish materials, on many different mandrels and tools, including impregnated phenolics, hardwoods, hard and soft felts, diamond impregnated bands and belts, leather, muslin, cotton, and canvas. You can see the shop tour and a lot of equipment on my CDROM Catalog.
It isn't just the equipment. If it were, every jeweler and lapidary would have the ability to mount and finish gemstone handles on knives. It also takes a considerable amount of skill, patience, and knowledge to work with rock, particularly in application on knife handles. Every single rock is different. Each one responds to a different abrasive or technique, every one must be handled differently. Some respond poorly to vibration, but are tough and solid when mounted on a knife tang. Some are a bit flexible (really)! Some are more brittle than others, some have inclusions to work around, eliminate from the material, or accent for a specific look. Some are so incredibly hard that it takes three times the effort to cut them. Some will check and frac if the slightest bit of concentrated heat builds on the surface, some actually benefit from high heat and pressure! Some rock dust is toxic, all is abrasive and dangerous to breathe.
There is also a great amount of tactile practice in working with lapidary carvings (that is essentially how gemstone handles are made). You must be able to feel the cut happening, judge when the feed pressure or tool speed is correct, sense the balance and weight of the piece.
Lapidary work takes a great deal of time, which most knife makers are not willing to invest. You may be nearly finished with a gem and reach a void, vug, or pocket that requires you to start over with a new piece of material. You may have to cut a 90 pound, 12 inch thick block of rock into thirty slabs before finding a piece that is suitable for handle scales. You may have a material that looks stunning, but as you cut it and grind it, it literally falls into crumbs. You may have rock appear on the market for a year, then never see it again. And you have to have hands like hawsers, yet sensitive to the lightest touch, and if you don't, they will be, or you won't be successful.I read a comment on a bulletin board by someone who should know better that gemstones should not be used on knife handles because of extra weight they would have and because if you dropped the knife, it could chip or crack. Unfortunately, this it typical of the ignorance in the knife making community that prevents many makers from even considering gemstone. Let's look at each of these points in detail.
Sometimes people ask if the gem is brittle. They're thinking about glass, I guess. In the hundreds and hundreds of gemstone handled knives I've made, I've never had a gemstone handle fail from outright breakage. Not one. I've had one tiny chip in an agate handle that was dropped on a stone floor, but it was repaired like brand new.
That is because the process of making the gem handle is brutal on the stone, and if it's going to break, it's going to happen then. Grinding stone is the most gut-wrenching, nerve-rattling, teeth-chattering experience you would ever want to have, and it takes hours and hours to grind, sand, and polish the stone. Most jewelers work with a tiny piece of rock smaller than a fingernail, dopped (glued) to a stick, and can work it up in a manner of minutes. I use big, solid, thick chunks of material larger than your fist, and I grind away everything I don't need, and it takes hours. If the rock survives this brutal process, it will outlast the blade on the knife! There is a reason my hands are so wide and I wear a size 13 wedding ring. Sure, there are some rocks and gems that are brittle, friable, or weak. I don't use those types on my gem handles.
I also test the material before I try to shape it to a handle. I take a slab of the gemstone (typically 3/16" to 3/8" thick) and slam it down on a hardwood table. If the rock is going to break, it breaks then, and not while I'm grinding or when you have it on your knife handle. This slam test rattles the most reserved of observers!
Another concern is weight. I work to carefully balance the weight that gemstones add to a knife handle. I usually mill a large portion of the unnecessary tang beneath the handle scales away to balance the handle. It takes some foresight to know just how much steel to mill away for the intended handle weight and the optimum balance while maintaining tang strength. This takes years of practice to fine tune, there is no formula to define it.
You might think a carver of alabaster or marble has it tough. People (usually tourists) marvel at these common carvings, many from Southwestern native tribes. They probably don't realize that the alabaster carver has only to use a chisel and hammer, some hand files and sandpaper to finish his work. There are hardwoods that are harder than alabaster and marble! Just remember, alabaster is nothing more than gypsum. Look at drywall. It's gypsum and you can scratch it with your fingernail. I say to those guys, try carving some jasper. It will instantly dull files, drills, sandpaper and even tungsten carbide or cermet tools.
This is why decades after I've made a gemstone knife handle, it looks like the day it left the shop. Nothing scratches it, nothing will dull the finish. Nothing except aluminum oxide, silicon carbide, and diamond, which the knife handle never encounters. The blade is much more likely to show wear, scratches, dulling, chips, dings, and dents. So the finish on every gemstone will outlast the finish on the blade. It will outlast all the metal on the knife. The finish will outlast every other handle material used on knives, period!
I use a proprietary method of gemstone attachment to the handle substrate, which is usually the blade steel. Though different types of handle arrangements are used, I make sure that the handles are attached with both mechanical as well as adhesive bonding. In bonding dissimilar materials, this is very important. In full tang knives, hidden rivets are used, and sometimes hidden pins, the same is also true on hidden tang knives. In hidden tang knives, there may be as many as four pins per piece of gem, it's not unusual for the handle of a hidden tang dagger to have over thirty actual pieces of material, metal, stone, spacers, gem, and sometimes wood. One handle I recall had 58 pieces, all meticulously fitted and finished.
You won't see the hidden pins and/or rivets, so the gemstone stands to the forefront of artistic expression. I also use a method that doesn't stress the stone in mounting (like woods and manmade materials which are tightly clamped). This makes a full floating bed for the stone, so post-mounting stresses are eliminated. There are a lot of technical details that go into gemstone handle mounts, and the type of stone also plays a part in how the handle mount is executed. A lot of planning and forethought goes into a gem handled knife, but what you need to know is this: in the nearly two thousand gemstone handled knives I've made in the last 30 years, I've never had one standard gemstone handle fail. NOT ONE.
Have I ever had a problem with a non-standard gemstone handle attachment? Just once:
In an effort to be brutally honest, I'll describe exactly it happened. I made a knife of stainless damascus steel, and the steel blade is typically etched with ferric chloride during the finishing. This solution chemically cuts away the harder and more carbon-bearing component of the steel layered blade, intensifying the pattern in the stainless steel. After the etching and attachment of bolsters, I chose a jasper and hematite gemstone for the handle. The handle was attached using hidden rivets and a special bonding epoxy bedding agent. The handle was ground and finished, but the tang of the knife was smooth, so I needed to etch the damascus tang. I immersed the entire handle into the ferric chloride solution and waited for the etching.
Now, if you are a knife maker, this next part is very important. Ferric chloride evidently has an affinity for epoxy-based bonding agents. I'd never heard of such a thing. It doesn't outright dissolve the epoxy, it just soaks into it and softens it. Additionally, the gemstone I had chosen for the handle had hematite as a component. Hematite is an iron-bearing mineral, in fact, it is actually iron oxide in mineral form. What I didn't know was that a micro-fracture layer of hematite in the stone had also been penetrated by the ferric chloride, and weakened the stone at that layer. I finished the handle, engraved the bolsters, made a sheath, and sold it to a great client.
Several months later, he emailed me and told me his handle had broken. He had dropped the knife, and the corner of a dresser must have hit it just right, because part of the handle "broke off." I was shocked. A simple bump on a dresser should not have caused the handle to break, much less come unbonded from the tang! When he sent the knife back, I realized my error with the ferric chloride treatment, and will never etch another finished tang without complete and meticulous masking and blocking.
I stood behind my guarantee of workmanship and put a new handle on the knife. It just goes to show you that when a standard method of attachment works, don't mess with it. Some of these gem handled knives have even seen combat!
Most of the time, clients searching through the gemstone index and photo galleries are taken by a particular color of gemstone. Truly, color is the first consideration when choosing a gem material for their custom knife. To the eye, when scanning the photo galleries, a bold color will stand out more than muted or mottled colors or patterns. Also, it's surprising how many people migrate to solid, uniform colors, without considering the fascinating patterns of some of the other gem material. Making a gemstone handled knife is not just a matter of picking a color. There are many considerations:
Here are some specific colors and some of the qualities and limitations of each. This is by no means a complete list; it is generalized and basic based on my experiences. Materials vary and new ones come up from time to time that are out of these norms.
See the fantastic light play of Italian Blue Goldstone in the sunlight in this 4mb video clip.
As a modern artist, I'm expected to be able to supply unusual and modern methods of creation for my clients. Unfortunately, nature does not always give us the colors we like to see in our fine ornaments. Gemstone is that way, and most of the time you have to take what you can get. Lately there have been many supplies of dyed gem on the market. Usually, I do not normally use dyed gem, particularly if the colors are garish and unnatural. But sometimes, a client will have a special request for a specific color. I will always disclose whether a gem is dyed or not, and my methods used to dye the stone are deep, permanent, and simulate what happens in nature and time. The dye penetrates deeply into the gem, and does not change. Sometimes, a light highlighting dye will accentuate the colors of the gem, intensifying the overall pattern. If you have a specific request, this treatment of gemstone may be just what you require. Like dying a leather sheath, dying gem does not change the appreciating value of the knife in any way. By the way, in most modern jewelry, the gemstones are treated or dyed to produce a specific color. This is standard practice in the jewelry trade and has been for decades.
Please rememer: I rarely dye gemstone, and over 99% of the gemstone handles you see represented on this site and in my catalogs are NOT dyed.
I may heat treat some gemstone for several reasons. Mostly, it is to effect a thorough color change in the material. Gemstones and minerals containing iron can often benefit from this treatment.
Here's how it works: the stone is heated very slowly to a high enough temperature for a long enough time to convert the iron in the rock to iron oxide, which is red. There may be a profusion and saturation of red, or there may be light changes that only occur in small areas. It is the color red that usually occurs. In gem like amethyst, the purple gem can be converted to citrine (golden orange-yellow) by heat treatment. Sometimes, a gem will lighten in color or become more translucent. Heat treatment can also make some gemstone easier to mechanically work and polish. Since this is exactly what might occur with minerals buried deep in the planet, it is not as unnatural as dying.
I do those, too, but not often. Faceted gemstone is the most commonly recognized form of gem, usually mounted in jewelry, but also occasionally adorning fine knives. I've seen knives covered with pave (paved) mounts; I've seen simple and clean displays of faceted gems that simply add a touch of interest. I've also seen knives where faceted gems have been added to "gussy up" a boring knife, or to add value. Some of this kind of work impresses jewelers, but unless it complements the form, the addition of faceted gemstone can make a knife gaudy.
It takes no great skill for most knife makers to add faceted gems to their knives; many of the gems are sold already mounted in bezels with pins, so the maker only needs to drill a hole for the pin, and glue the gem-bezel assembly to the knife. This can look tacky, like a leather vest covered in rhinestones. Knife clients may be surprised at how cheap these cut gems are nowadays. The faceted gemstone industry is huge, with plenty of automated factory equipment, "laboratory" grown gems or "created gems" (technical terms for factory-made gems), and automatic finishing equipment. Man-made gem material for the jewelry industry is a huge business, and it has driven down the price and value of faceted gemstone considerably in the last twenty years. So the addition of cut gemstones does not necessarily add value.
Faceted gemstone can be very uncomfortable for the human hand, as the edges and corners of the stones are sharp and well-defined. Use on the knife handle should probably be avoided. That is why you see many of the applications of faceted gemstone on the bolsters, guards, fittings, mounts, and even blades of custom knives. One option is the use of cabochons or doublet and triplet cut gemstones, which are rounded, polished forms. You don't see too much of them in this field probably because of their baroque and rough appearance. This is a shame, because they can be quite beautiful.
I select fine gemstones, some precious, some semi-precious, some classified as minerals or specimen grade, from a dozen or so suppliers. Some of my suppliers are foreign or domestic companies, some are rough and tumble rock hounds. Some materials I've even field collected myself. Real rock is not perfect, it has irregularities, inclusions of other materials, sometimes full pockets of crystal, and fractures that have been healed millions of years ago. This is what separates it from plastic. Plastic is uniform, monolithic, and boring. Plastic is light and flat, rock is hard, dense and usually glassy. You can take a hot nail and melt the plastic, a hot nail will do nothing to gemstone. You can scratch plastic easily, not gem. Gemstone assumes the temperature of its surroundings, feels dense and solid, has no wild expansion coefficient that will allow it to work loose from a knife handle mount. Plastic feels weak, light, looks flat and dull, will warp and change with heat and cooling. Plastic is lifeless, gemstone is timeless. Plastic is made by man, rock is made by God. Though man will strive to create gemstone in a laboratory environment (and he's done very well with precious gems like rubies, sapphires, and diamonds), he will never imitate multicolored jaspers with inclusions, nephrite jades with healed frac lines, and crystal pockets interspersed with hematite, quartzite, and amethystine flow banding. This takes millions of years of specialized circumstances that take place deep within the earth under tremendous heat and pressure. Each rock is truly original. Learn more about my gemstone handles on the Frequently Asked Questions Page "Why Gemstone Knife Handles?".
The test? Take a needle in a clamp and heat it up red hot. When you touch it to a plastic handle, it will burn, melt and permanently burn a hole in the plastic, ruining your handle (sorry)! If it's rock, nothing will happen. Okay, here's a less invasive test. Tap a handle with a small steel rod and listen to the sound. The plastic will "thump" and the gemstone will "click."
Okay, this needs to be very clear: These terms are describing plastic. In an effort to cheaply create and sell a product under the umbrella of gemstone, capitalizing on gemstone's value and durability and investment potential, companies and individuals have created names to make it appear that their product is gemstone. They even may claim that their product has 10% real stone dust in it. What? Yes, you can add some colored chalk to the melted plastic, and it has real stone dust in it!
This type of description has gone on far too long in this tradecraft, where guys will argue about .02 percent of tungsten in the alloy, yet lie about a soft polyester handle by calling it reconstituted dinosaur bone. Don't fall for that!
Please get this clear. These terms are describing plastics. Whether it's polyester, polyethylene, or acrylic, they are just plastic. If you can cut it with a metal hand saw it is probably plastic. If you can melt it with a hot needle, it's plastic. If you can soften it with lacquer thinner or MEK (methylethylkeytone), it's plastic. If there are any confusing terms like gem material or reconstructed stone, reconstituted or stabilized, alternate, or composite, it is plastic! Some suppliers will even try to tell you that it's very much like stone, and capitalize off the value of real gemstone. Don't be fooled or taken by this. Plastic is cheap, and it cheapens a knife. If you want a plastic handled knife, that's fine, just don't pay a gemstone price for a plastic handled knife. See the topic above to find out how to tell.
This is a very important point. Stones are often misidentified. I've seen black glass called onyx, I've seen serpentine called jade. I've seen marble misidentified as jasper, I've seen variscite called turquoise. It is very important to know what you are buying; the value of the piece may depend greatly on the materials used. The only way to be sure is to purchase the gemstone or gem handle knives from someone who has an established track record of gemstone knowledge, and that isn't always clear. Look at the pieces they make, their associations, and their history working with gemstone and rare materials. This is often the best indicator of their knowledge and reliability. Any artist or craftsman who uses gemstone should be able to tell you what the stone is made of. For instance, is the bronzestone actually brown micaceous hematite with feldspar inclusions and aventurescence or is it hypersthene with chatoyancy? Hmmm? Your knife maker should know the difference, or he has no business selling you a gemstone handled knife.
My name came up in an internet posting of a craftsman's worry about comparison to my gemstone handled knives. I took a look at this guy's work and process. It was clear that the man invested a lot of time, effort, materials, process, and skill in making his gemstone handles to apply (glued) to factory knives. There really is no comparison.
Unfortunately, retrofit knives of any kind are not a good investment for the knife client, not because of the craftsman who makes and applies the handle, but because they are applied to cheap, common, and mundane factory knives. No matter how complicated, well-executed, and magnificent a piece of rock or other material is made into a handle, it does it no justice to apply it to a common factory knife. This retrofit does not make it an investment knife, a knife worthy of collection, or worthy of note in any way.
It's kind of sad, because as the guy in the above case has the skill to make gemstone handles, he's probably got the skill to make the knives: the blades, the bolsters and fittings, the designs, the sheaths or stands, too. If he would apply that same dedication to the complete knife, it might surprise him how well he does.
Tying an individual maker's name to a factory refit doesn't do a maker any good, either. There are dozens of guys who have attached gemstone and other unusual materials to factory made knives, and there is a huge company here in the southwest that regularly offers this service. The knives are and will continue to be cheaply made and of little value.
This process is humorously referred to in the jewelry industry and tradecraft as "glue and stick." It originates from folks who buy the findings (metal premade components like ear posts, rings with bezels, and chains) from one source, and buy gemstone from another source and glue and stick them together. They then go on to claim that they are jewelers.
For years, I've kept relatively quiet about this type of knife handling, but no more; I've been asked repeatedly to elaborate on this topic with details and specifics and I owe it to my tradecraft and all the real knife makers who've gone before me to clear the decks. Knife enthusiasts need to know what they are looking at, reading, and the source and validity of the people who make the knives they may spend their money on. You've read a good chunk of my website by now, so you can clearly see who I am, my experience, my background, and my career as well as a couple thousand knives I've made on this site. So here goes:
It's sad to see the hyperbole that is posted on the web and in some publications about this type of work, and the people who post it should be ashamed. No matter how well versed the retrofit guy is in gemstone, when applied to a factory knife it's like gussying up a pig. I've seen claims like "instant heirloom," and even the statement "you can not buy a finer gemstone handled knife." Surely their search engines work; surely they have seen the number one gemstone handled knife maker's site on the internet and in the world. Surely they can actually see knives that do appreciate in value, are unique in materials, design, blades, handles, accessories, and embellishment. I suppose they're thinking no one else will stumble upon this very site that gets over 75,000 hits a day at the time of this writing... okay, take Jay Fisher's knives out of the picture and look at what they are selling. Take a really good look:
Look, there's nothing wrong with buying a factory retrofit or a kit knife blade with a piece of stone stuck on it, but please don't try to make a valid comparison to a handmade or custom knife of sole authorship by an established maker, and don't pay a substantial price for the piece. It was a cheap knife when it left the factory or the kit shop that sold it, and does not become better designed, finished, or of better quality in materials and workmanship simply by gussying it up with a piece of rock or other material. It's still a cheap knife, just with a colorful handle.
You'll do better by going to a local rock hound or lapidary club in your community, and having them help you re-handle your knife. Any jeweler worth his salt will be able to guide you to someone in your location who can help out with this type of craft. Just supply the knife blade yourself, and don't pay more than the original value of the knife for the service, and don't expect the knife to be an investment, just a curiosity.
You want to be very careful purchasing gemstone for any professional lapidary (that's me) to use. Unless you're familiar with rock and mineral determination, inspection, and purchase, you might acquire material that is unusable. Here's a portion of an email response I sent to a client who wanted to supply a hunk of rock he'd been impressed with on Ebay, and have me use it as a custom knife handle.
Now, about gemstone. On the link you included, they’ve misidentified orbicular jasper as ocean jasper. You can see some ocean jasper on my site here. On that same page, there are several pictures of orbicular jasper. The misidentification is a serious thing. I've seen serpentine identified as jade in this trade, which is unforgivable. The other thing about gemstone is that you must have enough viable, hard, fracture free material for both handle scales. So, since you can’t really test that slab on Ebay, you don’t know if it’s going to break. You don’t know if on the other side of the rock there are vugs, holes or inclusions, and you don’t know how hard, how uniform, or how tough the slab is overall. You have to have a piece large enough for cutting down (generally about 6-8” length, and 2” wide), and you have to have a pair, as closely matched as possible. That’s a lot to ask of a photo from Ebay. Again, I’m not saying that the material isn’t out there, I’m just a lot more comfortable going to my suppliers, and buying known material that I can slab myself. After all that, I’ll say that if you wish to purchase material for me to use on a knife blade or handle, that is your option. I just can’t guarantee that I can work with it and it will come out as you (and I) hope.
Unless you're a lapidary, making the decision to have me use a particular piece of gemstone for your project is probably best left to me. If you have the rock and want to send it to me, let me know and we'll talk. I might even trade a knife for a particularly good piece of raw rock.
Occasionally, I get asked to incorporate supplied gemstone, cut, cabbed, faceted, or in finished pieces to a knife project. I usually decline this offer, as there are some difficulties that this may incur that are not initially obvious.
It's not that I don't want to work with fine materials, or have the client's ideas for a project, but I have to limit my liabilities, uncertainties on both sides of the artist-patron relationship, and keep things simple and clear.
Petrified wood is a fairly common fossil in North America. It is formed when a tree has fallen into or is covered by mud and muck in some catastrophic event, such as a flood or volcanic eruption. This buries the trunk or limbs of the tree quickly, before decomposition can eat away the tree's remains. Then, sealed from oxygen, scavengers, and bacterial decay, the wood is encased for literally millions of years. While encased, the organic material slowly dissolves and is replaced by minerals which are carried into the spaces where the wood's cells have been. The minerals then form the petrified wood with the same shape, size and arrangement of cells as the original organic components. The wood of the tree is replaced by rock. This is the same process that produces all true fossils.
People collect petrified wood, because it's very easy to recognize on the ground, is fascinating to examine, and can offer striking and colorful patterns and arrangements. Since it is stone, it can be worked as with any lapidary material into jewelry, bookends, or even knife handles. I've worked with a lot of petrified wood.
Sometimes, a client will offer his own petrified wood for a custom project. I rarely accept these projects because of several reasons.
This is why if a client offers petrified wood for a project, I'll usually decline. The only exceptions would be if the material is already slabbed (and its durability and color confirmed) or if it is a rare or valuable material like opalized petrified wood. Then, we can talk about the possibility of making a beautiful pair of knife handle scales for his custom project.
Hunting for raw stone, a.k.a. rock hounding can be a casual or a very involved process. There are quite a few texts available listing common areas where certain types of worthwhile gem and rock material can be found, and the best thing to do is to get one of those small books or pamphlets detailing the area you plan to travel through. Be prepared, though, as properties listed as open often change hands after publication of those texts, some areas are hounded out, and others may be inaccessible. The type of stone may vary greatly, and not all rock can be used on knife handles. See the topic on size below. Agates, jaspers and other hard stones are best, but sometimes unusual types work well. Hounding may require long hikes through desolate territory, and hauling big chunks and small boulders (a boulder is classified as a rock larger than 10” in diameter) is a lot tougher than it sounds. But the process can be very fun, and I’ve certainly spent my own share of time in the wilderness gathering stone.
Another more direct option is to locate and visit local rock shops and lapidary houses in the areas you plan to drive through. These guys have already done most of the work for you, they often have local stock, and may even have rough material that has been slabbed out, perhaps lapped or polished, and you can see just what the material you’re purchasing looks like. If you are traveling with a female companion, this may often be preferable to both of you, as she can peruse the jewelry often offered at these small stores. Sometimes, you can get really nice rough for very cheap, 1-3 dollars a pound and it can be slabbed and trimmed for use on a knife handle. Just be sure that whatever rock you get is uniform, solid, with little or no cracks, voids, or inclusions of other materials. Often, if a rock is already slabbed out by a local lapidary, you can be more positive about it holding up to trimming and grinding into a knife handle.
Size does matter when collecting, purchasing, or selecting stones for use in knife handles. Because most knife handles require much larger pieces of gemstone than jewelry, it might be difficult to find certain types that are large enough, or have high enough yield to produce correctly shaped pieces after slabbing. Rocks are generally rounded, so imagine a loaf of round bread being sliced. the pieces on the end are pretty much unusable, and so may be the next cut or two, depending on the shape of the rock. As a lapidary, I'll do my best to orient the rock into the saw vise and holding arrangement, but still this may limit the size of worthwhile pieces that the rock may yield. If the rock has a large vein, fracture, or inclusion running through it, it may not yield enough material for even a small knife handle once slabbed. The stone may cleave when cut, which is a natural tendency for rock to fracture along its own molecular plane surfaces, and you may not discover this until cutting.
The proper size of stone for such an endeavor is called a large cobble. A cobble has an intermediate diameter of between 2.5 and 10 inches (64-256 mm). I work with a lot of large cobbles. The size needed for most full-tang knife handles is at least 3.5" long, and 1.5" wide. So, you can see a small cobble would not be large enough. Forget pebbles, which are between .1 and 2.5" (2-64 mm). Also, remember that I must be able to produce a pair of handles from the stone. An ideal size of rough is a small boulder. Boulders are defined as being larger than 10" (256 mm) in diameter. My saws can only accommodate a boulder with the largest length or diameter of about 14" so there is a limit. Remember also, that most stone is heavier than water of the same volume, so shipping small boulders may be very expensive and impractical. Try to carry a 90 pound boulder of granite out of the back country, and you'll get a real appreciation of the mass! Each case must be considered individually.
Want to know how big a rock can be? Try a batholith. It's an igneous mass that has a bedrock surface of at least 40 square miles (100 square km) or more and has no known bottom! (Please don't send me one for your knife)
You might have seen a gemstone handled knife, or a knife with pieces or parts or inlays of gem in the handle. Most of these are made by a company in New Mexico, where dozens of workers take pieces of material (some is gem but most is plastic) and glue them together and then glue them to a knife tang or handle. The work is shoddy, with gaps and spaces between the material filled with glue. I cringe when someone mentions the company name, as it is an example of what is worst in the jewelry industry. There are a number of offenses committed by companies like these:
There is nothing inherently wrong with this type of cheap product; it is what it is. It is not an investment knife, and not a knife worthy of a collection of any value, long or short term. More details about glue and stick knife handles on my refitting topic above.
Unfortunately, no. The pictures in the photo galleries of gemstone handle materials (and all the pictures on this web site) represent the last 30+ years of my life's work, and feature gemstones used on those handles. The gemstone handle photo galleries only show my gemstone handles, they are not meant to be an inventory of available material for new knives, they are meant as a reference only. While I do have some of the materials that are pictured, my inventory of gem and mineral constantly changes. See some of the latest acquisitions of new material here. Also, gemstone is not like wood; you can't go to your local supplier and get more. Some of the material is a once-in-a-lifetime find, some is on the gemstone rough market for a few years and then never seen again. Some is very rare (see my Nebula Stone page here). Other gemstone rough is commonly sold and easily acquired. Please remember also that the names for gem material are numerous. Like exotic woods, it seems every country or location or dealer has a different name for gemstone material, so gemstone listed under one name may show up as another name in another place.
Below is a group of picture galleries of several hundred gemstone knife handles, all made by me over the decades. You'll also see some pictures of slabbed and rough gemstone. All of these types in the alphabetic index I have used, many of them are currently in stock and available. You'll notice some types are represented with several pictures, due to variations in the stone. You'll see variations, mosaics of stone and stone, mosaics of wood and stone and metals. Click on the pictures to see an enlarged image. I'll add to these galleries as new minerals, gem, rock, and stone are found, purchased, or used.
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