An entrepreneur battles the Blacksmith patriarchy
Five years ago around Christmas time, Kamila Hankiewicz was shopping for a Japanese knife to gift her partner. She found the perfect knife, but it was close to $650, a price a bit too steep. She shopped around some more, but the Japanese knives of that quality were all out of her price range. So she did what any entrepreneurial woman does: she decided to try to search for a blacksmith who could make a custom knife for her. But it was a difficult task, searching on Japanese language websites. Eventually she found a blacksmith who hand crafted the knife for her, It was a beautiful gift and it was much cheaper as well. A business idea was born.
Ah, but the patriarchy is strong in Japan; nothing says it quite so clearly as the business of making knives. All blacksmiths are men, and they refuse to sign a blade that will be sold by women. But Kamila, the co-founder of the Japanese kitchenware company Oishya—a brand named for the Japanese concept of Oishy Oishy—a feeling of joy around sharing food and drink with your loved ones and friends—has tried to change that.
To create her hand-crafted Sakai Kyuba knives, made in the small blacksmithing village of Sakai near Osaka, she met an agent (naturally, a man) who brokered a deal with some of the best and most acclaimed blacksmiths in Osaka who hand forge the blades without signing their names. To convince the blacksmiths to work with her, she maintains relationships with their wives. Seriously. It’s a work around that’s imperfect but suits both parties; she gets the best quality, highest carbon hand-forged steel knife blades, and the blacksmiths’ conservative traditions are preserved.
Beyond the blade though, Kamila’s teams of artisans make every other part of the knife. That includes the handle collar (the kakumaki), handmade from bog oak wood, which is a treasure on its own. Bog wood comes from trees that have been buried in peat bogs and preserved from decay by the acidic and anaerobic bog conditions. This wood ranges in age from 2,500 to 5,000 years old; theirs is, oh about 3000 years old. Its age and living conditions give it a unique character and rich natural color variation determined by its age. Its color gradually darkens with age going from a light, golden brown to an almost ebony-black.
The handles are made from maple burl, hand dyed in celestial tones of the sea and sky (mine is pictured above), and stabilized in Europe. It’s a rare combination that’s not in play with any other knife maker.
The knife is a kitchen tool, yes, one like I’ve never worked with before. The blade is exquisitely sharp, making quick work of fruits and vegetables for the kids’ snacks and prep work for bigger cooking projects. But this piece is a work of art. I must get a magnetic plate to display it, or frame it on the wall. It’s just elegant and mature, like a found treasure. When I hold it, it feels like it has a soul, almost like it has been waiting for me.
Learn more about her knives here.