Among knife aficionados, you’ll often hear the term ‘grail knife’. This usually refers to a knife the ‘afi’ in question has a hard time to hunt down and that’s number 1 on his wish list. I’ve been careful not to throw the term around too much myself. However, the knife I’m posting here is certainly worthy of the moniker. This fall, I scored a vintage Al Mar model 4009 Commemorative Presidential Bowie knife. I had been pining for this knife since I first got into knives in the early 90s. Now, this very same knife is mine!
My main EDC and collection interest is Spyderco and I cannot imagine that to change. Before I arrived at the Golden brand, however, I went through all major factory brands and some custom makers. I carried, used and collected a little bit of everything. Al Mar was a brand that appealed to me very early on. Not so much for use, but for the pure enjoyment of collecting. The wood, leather and brass parts, combined with very powerful blade profiles, are still an irresistible combination to me. Later on, I was delighted to learn that Al Mar played an instrumental role in the founding of Spyderco. On a vacation trip to Switzerland around 1992, I visited a knife shop that featured this massive Al Mar bowie knife in its own red velvet lined lacquered box. It was love at first sight, but the price was astronomical.
Swiss knife shop
During my first trip to Switzerland I was pleasantly surprised. Every town seemed to feature knife shops! As you’d expect, they were all stocked to the ceiling with traditional Swiss army knives. But you’d also find plenty of cool ‘real’ knives. In one of these towns, close to our camping site in the Swiss canton of Graubünden, I found the shop that carried this Al Mar Presidential Bowie. My dad taught some courses there, and we would often combine our family vacation with these courses. This way, I would visit the shop every couple of years and I’d always be heartbroken to see this awesome knife still sitting there. But it was simply too expensive for me.
Since my dad passed a few years ago, we still like to occasionally visit the area for family vacations. This year was different as I had a mission. I’d been saving up and this time, I was determined to take the knife home with me. Despite my growing worries about the knife being sold, I was relieved to find the knife still sitting there in a dark corner of the basement-level in the shop! The store had been slowly transforming from a real knife shop into a shop focusing on souvenirs and culinary items. In the basement were some of the last ‘real’ knives. I had to play it cool, as I wanted to negotiate a lower price. I noticed the handle color had faded a bit, there didn’t seem to be a certificate and the wooden case’s lid had warped just a tiny bit. And don’t forget, this knife hadn’t sold for over 20 years. There should be some room for negotiation right?
It turned out that the Swiss aren’t accustomed to haggling. I had to speak to the manager who wouldn’t be in for a few days. That was OK, after all those years I could wait another day or two. It turned out that the manager worked for the previous owner, who passed away a few years earlier. He was a collector and he loved this knife as well. It was actually the only knife still left in the shop that he had acquired. The conversation didn’t go very easy at first, but once she noticed that I was a real collector things got better and we struck a deal. She finally said that she only agreed to negotiate, because she figured it would be going to a proper home.
The knife itself is still in excellent condition. It just needed a little bit of cleaning up (I know I hurt the collector value, but this is MY knife now!). After polishing the brass guard with a mild brass cleaner, I noticed a number in the guard. According to an old Al Mar catalog, this commemorative Bowie was released in a 100 piece run. It turns out that I got number 16! I also cleaned and carefully polished the green pakkawood handle with some renaissance wax. This significantly improved the color fading I noticed earlier. The handle is actually a one-piece design that exposes the tang only on the spine of the handle. The massive blade is about 12 inches long, 2 inches wide and 0.196 inches thick. It certainly held up well all those years. Although it shows no signs of resharpening etc.., the edge was still screaming sharp. The etching is also in excellent condition. I did notice a few imperfections in the blade’s polish from the manufacturer, through my magnifying glass. It doesn’t show up in regular handling and display though.
The lid on the box shows some slight warping, but it is not dinged or scratched. The box is a shiny lacquered wooden affair. I also noticed a few of the nails from the hinges were loose. I carefully fixed that, again, I know this hurts the market value but I still don’t care ;-). The lock came with one key and the mechanism still works well. I added a drop of oil just to be on the safe side. The velvet lining in the box was not cut, torn or worn in any way. There was just a bit of dust that I carefully brushed off. There was no sheath with this knife. A moot point; as I cannot imagine actually carrying this magnificent blade. After a thorough search of the warehouse area, the shop manager even turned up the original blue cardboard box. The knife did not come with any paperwork and I do kind of miss the certificate, which I’ve seen in both a vintage catalog and several eBay auctions.
I’m incredibly happy and satisfied that this knife is now in my collection. I visited this knife many times in the 22 years that I knew it existed, and now I was able to take it home with me. I get a little boost of nostalgia every time I look at this beast of a knife. Although the knife was designed to look the part, the construction is old-fashioned Al Mar. the same construction that was put in the famous field knives, was also used to manufacture this beautiful Bowie. The knife handles surprisingly light and the grip is quite ergonomic. I might offer my daughters to use this knife to cut their wedding cakes. I can’t think of any other use that I would risk scratching the finish of this great looking knife. Thank you Al Mar for creating such an awesome design, and of course for helping Sal to produce his first Spyderco knife!