Cape Town, South Africa
Tel. 021 794 6660
History is often said to repeat itself. Sometimes it happens during one’s own lifetime, other times it takes many lifetimes, even centuries. And so it is with Ettore Gianferrari. As his surname implies, his family’s origins lie in soldiering and metalworking. Those skills were lost as changes took place within society and following generations turned to engineering and transport to earn their daily bread. Ettore trained and worked as a cabinetmaker, building a successful interior furnishing company, but all the time history was waiting for the right moment to steer him back to his origins.
Born in the little town of Bellinzona, in the canton of Ticino, on the border between Switzerland and Italy, Ettore completed his apprenticeship in cabinet making at the age of 17, and then decided to travel to Cape Town, South Africa in search of new opportunities.
In 1986 he met Des Horn who had Ettore to build him a kitchen in his new Cape Town home. The two quickly established a friendship when Des gave Ettore one of his handmade knives. It was the first time he had handled a custom knife and it would change his life forever. Within a year Ettore has built a workshop under his house and equipped it with a Emco mill and lathe, belt grinder and bandsaw. He had long been searching for a challenging hobby, and the amalgamation of natural materials, steel, and soft metals into a precision instrument was just what he had been looking for. Progress was rapid and his natural flair for design, shape and proportion came to the fore. In 1988 Ettore was accepted into the Knifemakers Guild of Southern Africa, and ten years later, in 1998, he was made a “maestro” of the Italian Knifemakers Guild.
For Ettore the thrill of knifemaking is in the chase. He does not make knives to sell, nor does he have a model line, or multiple examples of a design. Each knife is a one-off. The desire to make unique knives has its own set of challenges. With so many outstanding custom knives being made every day, by so many talented knifemakers around the world, how does one come up with a new design? Well, in true Swiss-Italian tradition, it is best done over a glass or two of grappa. Hilton Purvis, and Ettore, have collaborated to design a number of award winning daggers all of which started life around a dining room table, a sheet of paper and pencil, and some liquid inspiration!
It is this quest for uniqueness that led him to the source of steelmaking, and the origins of his family name. Forging, and being able to create his own size billets, allowed Ettore to build knives that had previously been out of reach. He can now forge long thin billets for blades, or thick billets for guards and pommels. He can taper the billet to force the damascus pattern to follow the line of the blade. All this provides freedom which is not always possible with stock bars of steel. Ettore is now able to blend the steel into the design and create greater harmony between the various components of the larger daggers. The design in the steel became part of the knife, rather than the knife design being part of the steel. For the first time he could now not only design unusual blades, pommels and guards, but also design the steel that goes into their construction. There are no fixed rules how his billets come into being. Some are designed with a specific intent, for a selected blade or bolster. Others come about as the result of experimenting.
Forging also brought out an element of knifemaking that is often lost in the clinical layout of a precision workshop. It is the ability to work up a sweat, to get dirty, to put in physical exertion. It generates a bond between the knifemaker and his steel which does not exist with bar stock. Visitors to his workshop often joke that it resembles a surgery, or that one can eat off the floor! That is still so, but in his forge, located some 75 metres away, things are more basic and earthy. The roar of the forge, and the steady beat of the hammer provide a rhythm by which Ettore can work. He prefers to forge alone, finding it safer, and it allows him to plan and pace himself. Forging intricate mosaic and spirograph damascus requires concentration and planning, an incorrect weld, or a mistake on the hammer, and the pattern can be ruined.
What Ettore has managed to do is merge the old fashioned craft of forging steel, with modern methods and materials. He uses a gas forge, a “Little Giant” power hammer, a hydraulic press, an electric oven, a surface grinder, and incorporates power metallurgy into his billets. He is unable to escape his natural precision personality, and therefore enjoys making fine mosaic and spirograph pattern damascus. The demands of designing jigsaw like billets of different steels and nickels are fascinating to him. A sideline of damascus steel is the making of mokume, a laminate of copper, brass, and nickel. The technique required to make mokume is different to that of damascus, but many of the principles are the same. The result is a forged web of soft metals which make beautiful bolsters, guards and pommels.
One cannot help but feel that his early years of knifemaking were actually simply another form of apprenticeship, this time leading to the original family skill of working with metal, and more particularly, forging damascus steel. In order to reach the level of awareness to make damascus he first had to serve his time. Ettore has always made one-off knives, never repeated, always unique. Regardless of how one wishes to forge steel, two billets will never be the same. By definition, each piece of damascus steel is unique. Perhaps this is why forging damascus steel appeals to him so much. It is after all in his blood.
And so it has come to pass, that centuries after his ancestors literally forged the history of south-eastern Switzerland, so Ettore Gianferrari has re-learned the skills of his forefathers and taken them to a new, higher level.