Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Kard - Persian-inspired knife

For this post I will open with pictures of my work, and leave the inspiration and process for later.

I attempted in this blade to capture what the essence of the characteristically Persian kard (کارد; Farsi for "knife") is to me: a deviously slim blade presence with graceful lines and a refined handle that makes you itch to grasp it.  I think I was more successful in the former part than the latter, but I am utterly infatuated with this blade style and fully intend to develop my own knowledge and interpretation of it further in geometry, history, and materials.

I've always been very attracted to blades that I perceive to be the "everyday knife", but not in the way that a buck knife is.  Rather, I loved the idea of the fashion knife, the heirloom, the functional knife that's part of the costume.  What's wonderful about the idea to me is that it is still an everyday knife, but it's not a nobody.  The idea may be different, but in my paper about the sword as a subarchetypal character in Germanic myth, I liken some named swords to heroes.  Similarly, the 'heirloom knife' takes on a character, passing as it does from owner to owner, from land to land, from ship to shore, on the bodies at the belts of people who are doing things to change and connect the world.

The kard in particular embodies this romantic notion for me because of the Silk Road.  Persia, for many, many centuries under numerous names, rulers, religions, divisions, cultures, and empires, has stood at the geographical heart of Eurasia and seen passions and wars flow between the ends of the earth.  The Silk Road was the great artery of this heart, connecting across leagues, linking through people, carrying the fractal nature of action from one end of the world to the other with infinite consequences unknown to their perpetrators.

Ubiquitous among Persian archaeology is a knife that comes in many sizes, shapes, provenances, and qualities: the kard.  Most examples are exquisitely beautiful and luxurious, but show signs of use, perfectly exhibiting the dilemma of the handmade sword: simultaneous function and beauty; more abstractly, caring creation and brutal purpose. 

The blade on the left is my loose interpretation of the kard, with a very distinctive blade and handle profile. Mine is a more stripped-down version constructed of materials of my choice, rather than traditional ones. The blade is ~325 layers of folded 1095 and 15n20. The pattern produced by hand-hammering this laminated steel into the three-dimensional shape of a knife pushes the layers back and forth across their lateral planes and produces a wavy, swirly, eddying random pattern when the blade is ground flat. The visual effect, revealed after polishing by etching it in a corrosive, is a vaguely recognizable imitation of traditional Persian wootz crucible steel (pulâd, پولاد, in Farsi), which according to some may account for the highly confusing misnomer "Damascus steel". The blade is 8.25" in length and the overall length is 13.75", with a handle proportionally longer than most extant originals, and perhaps also narrower where it widens to meet the base of the blade.  The placement of the pins is less common but not unseen; some kard had tang constructions that were obscured by the handle and others were laminated between scales like mine. 

I have chosen some examples of originals to highlight the unbelievable beauty in form and decoration.  To the right is a 19th century Persian kard constructed similarly to mine, but made of wootz crucible steel and heavily carved, as well as inlaid and overlaid with gold wire, resplendent in graceful floral curves for which Persian craftspeople had an obvious eye; the form of their works and their written language itself attest to that.  It was very common for the koftgari wire overlay to contain verses from the Koran in Farsi, among other decorative calligraphy. 

The next original example is also a sublime piece of work.  Similarly constructed of pulâd, gold, and ivory, it would be an aesthetic triumph already even if it didn't contain some of the most incredible Middle Eastern steel carving I know of.  It's a technical masterpiece, but I am always amazed by how aesthetically partial I actually am to Persian art and craft regardless of technical complication.  I really like it.

I have to pay credit where it is due, of course.  Though I have admired the kard for many years, I will proudly and unashamedly say that what inspired me to make this knife was the very similar (but generally superior in all aspects and overall execution to mine) kard by none other than Kevin Klein, apprentice to JD Smith.  To the right is the only known photograph of it.  During my class with Mastersmith Smith, Kevin was his right hand man and taught me equally as much.  I was captivated by the grace and obvious lethality of his piece, and how it sat in my hand like it was alive.  His blade pattern was deliberately smokier, his finish fine and precise, and his signature filework exquisite and honestly unfathomable.  Needless to say, I wanted to make my own.

I can only say so much on the subject of crucible steel that is generally referred to as "wootz", and if anyone's interested I can personally refer them to Mr. Jeff Pringle of Oakland, California, who has experimented extensively with the smelting, forging, patterning, and finishing of wootz steel.  I have a negligible amount of knowledge on the subject despite his best efforts to educate me, and I'm afraid it will be some years before I can carry a conversation on the subject.  But I think it has an unparalleled ethereal beauty.  The above example is striking in subtlety and contrast both.  Having personally experienced the incredibly difficult workability of wootz, and with my struggles with carving and inlay, I have some serious respect for whoever inlaid this steel with that gold and beautiful calligraphy.   Kind of like I do for Jeff Pringle on his creative piece

So, back to my piece!  My blade lies here, during its stoning and preliminary sharpening, on the back porch of my wonderful, beautiful Boston apartment that I loved dearly.  To the right are the lower bolsters I forged and ground by hand from ~200 year old wrought iron from a scrapped New Hampshire graveyard fence.  The handle scales are moose antler I purchased in Worcester, MA from a quirky and fascinating shop called Bones and Flowers, run by a wonderful woman called Tannin who wants to talk about leather and bone and horn and antler until the cows come home to be turned into craft material.  Seriously, if you stop in to see her, and talk to her a while, you're going to talk for a long time and then get some good deals on the things you've been eying while talking to her.  The people you meet on the journey of craft, as in anything you pursue to unusual places, are artful to say the least. 

I attached the bolsters mechanically with copper rivets; that is, without any adhesive.  The scales were epoxied and then riveted as well.  I have to say, it was totally a pain in the ass to try to rivet at that angle.  At the butt-end of the piece (see bottom photo), I embellished the tang with totally personal European-influenced filework, sandwiched between the protruding "ears" of the scales.  I felt the "ear" feature was appropriate given its appearance on some kard and pronounced ubiquity in the Turkish yataghan.  The filework was topically inappropriate but a good learning experience and fun artistic license.  I was very pleased with the color and texture composition of the piece, and felt that I had captured in a small way the refined aesthetic of the originals that inspired me.  However, my treatment of the materials and the way I decorated them leaves a decidedly European taste in my mouth.  In the end, that's what I am a product of, and I think I truly don't have the capacity to make anything else right now.  That said, this piece is a true representation of my aesthetic, aspirations (failed and achieved), influences, and progress so far. 

Stay tuned for the making of the sheath!

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