Walking into one of the knife boutiques in the French town of Thiers was like walking into a watch store in Switzerland. There were so many dazzling choices: rare folding knives with real mammoth-tooth handles and hand-forged Damascus steel blades that sell for thousands of euros beside handsome pocket knives and hunting knives priced anywhere between €50 to €500. I was a kid in a candy store.
I was a kid in a candy store.
Thiers is widely known among those of us afflicted with chronic knife-geekery as the European capital of fine, locally made folding knives. That’s why I had come. My thing is artisanal pocket knives with a corkscrew. The corkscrew requirement helps restrict my knife-purchasing urges that might otherwise spiral out of control, and makes the knife a more practiced accomplice in my joie de vivre. I never leave home without choosing a knife from my little collection and dropping it in my pocket. And I never miss a chance to use it, even if it means ridiculously cutting the top off a banana.
View image of The French town of Thiers is known for its locally made folding knives (Credit: Credit: Yann Guichaoua-Photos/Getty Images)
I’d been drawn to this small Auvergne town (population 11,600) by its long history of craftsmanship. Knives were being made here at least as far back as the 15th Century, and probably as early as the 13th, according to the ancient grindstones found just below town by the Durolle River, which powered the mill paddlewheels.
And knives have been made here ever since. In fact, the man showing me the knife in his shop, his fingertips cracked and blackened, had made many of them himself.
Dominique Chambriard, wearing a traditional blue workman’s tunic, proudly led me to a version of the area’s iconic knife, ‘Le Thiers’, which was designed in 1993, when the Confrerie du Couteau Le Thiers (Brotherhood of the Thiers Knife) was set up to make a knife distinctive to their town. Fifteen local master knife-makers (including Chambriard), over a period of months, designed a simple, subtle, organic design for ‘Le Thiers’, based on ideas from their 16th-Century guild forefathers.
View image of Knives have been made in Thiers since at least the 15th Century (Credit: Credit: Bill Harby)
“We had two priorities: beautiful, simple design, and excellent function,” Chambriard told me in French.
Today, the proof of those priorities is evident in the many subtle variations – perhaps a proportionally longer blade or embellished handle – upon the approved graceful design. These fine modern folding knives are assembled usually by one artisan, mostly by hand, using a hammer, metal snips and electric belt grinders and polishers.
We had two priorities: beautiful, simple design, and excellent function.
Currently, there are more than 200 coutelleries, family-owned knife workshops, in the Brotherhood, including Coutellerie Robert-David, which has been operating under different family names since 1919. The shop offers a variety of knives in many styles, including a version of the iconic Le Thiers.
Before I arrived in town, I called and asked if I could come to the shop and order a Le Thiers knife, choosing in person the exact piece of material for the handle, the blade and the folding spring. “Oui, certainement,” said Monsieur Stéphane Brossard, a great-grandson of the founder.
View image of Dominique Chambriard helped preserve the design the town’s iconic knife, ‘Le Thiers’ (Credit: Credit: Bill Harby)
Brossard showed me knife after knife with various handles and blades. Did I want a wooden handle? Or maybe animal horn? Bone? What about the blade? Stainless steel with a satin finish perhaps? Or did I want to splurge on intricately patterned Damascus steel?
I finally chose a handle of polished, orange-and-green tinted camel bone and a beautiful Damascus steel blade, all for €407. After all, one does not make the pilgrimage to Thiers every day.
Stéphane Renard has been a coutelier (knife maker) in Thiers for 25 years. I watched as he assembled the six pieces that make up most folding knives: two handle pieces, the backbone of two steel liners, the spring and the blade, plus the additional piece that is obligatoire for me: the corkscrew. During the 90 minutes Renard spent assembling, grinding, tapping, polishing and otherwise fine-tuning my knife, he happily answered my questions, clearly delighted to meet the person for whom he was making this fine knife.
View image of The owners of Thiers’s coutelleries make each knife by hand (Credit: Credit: Bill Harby)
My beautiful new knife is a classic Le Thiers. But as steeped in tradition as knife-making is in this town, not every local artisan bows at that altar. Roland Lannier, who grew up near Paris in a family that had nothing to do with knife making, has been a coutelier in Thiers since he was an 18-year-old apprentice. Later he worked for Perceval, a respected Thiers atelier, and now makes knives under his own name, which has quickly gained him a following among connoisseurs as kind of a beloved bad boy.
But as steeped in tradition as knife-making is in this town, not every local artisan bows at that altar.
Lannier got into the trade thanks to his misspent youth in medieval role-playing games while listening to a lot of heavy metal music. His knives are decidedly not traditional Le Thiers. Sharply bevelled handles are cut from colourful resins or old vinyl records layered with anything from tartan designs to album labels.
Did he ever apply to become a member of the venerable Confrerie de Couteau de Thiers?
“Hell, no!” he said in perfect English. One of his most popular knives is named ‘Why So Serious?’, a tribute to the late actor Heath Ledger in his role as the Joker in Batman.
View image of Writer Bill Harby purchased a knife made from camel bone and Damascus steel (Credit: Credit: Bill Harby)
Indeed, why so serious? In Thiers knife shops, I often saw customers with furrowed brows, trying to decide which of hundreds of exquisite knives they might choose. Of course, I was one of them during three days of window-shopping, drooling, seeing so many beauties I could have happily brought into the family. Instead, with a big smile, I bought one stunning knife. Which I got to watch being made. Just one knife, one Le Thiers.
Join over three million BBC Travel fans by liking us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter and Instagram.
If you liked this story, sign up for the weekly bbc.com features newsletter called “If You Only Read 6 Things This Week”. A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Earth, Culture, Capital and Travel, delivered to your inbox every Friday.