Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Ancestral Knife of the Inuit, The Ulu

Uluit have been found that date back to as early as 2500 BC. Traditionally, the ulu would be passed down from generation to generation. It was believed that an ancestor's knowledge was contained within the ulu and thus would also be passed on.

Migrating north from Asia came many peoples who settled in that vast territory that stretches from Eastern Siberia to the shores of Greenland. The Algonquin tribe of Native Americans called them Eskimos, which means “eaters of raw meat,” but their own name for themselves was Inuit, which they proudly translate as “men” or “real men” or even “superman.” As the centuries passed, these people developed rites and customs, a particular way of living, clothes that were perfectly suited to the climate conditions and various objects, including knives of course, whose shape and use varied according to gender.

The ulu, or oulou, is actually as womanʼs knife for daily use, but which over time came to be used by men also. The meat that they ate was not cut up on a plate, but carried directly to the mouth and sliced as close as possible to the lips using the blade of the ulu. The half-moon shape of the blade is both practical and symbolic. The symbol is of course that of the moon, of fecundity and of woman.

From a practical point of view, it should be noted that the handle may be firmly grasped even if one is wearing large gloves, and that the shape of the blade is ideal both for scraping a hide before drying it, and then for cutting it. After all, can we not find a very similar tool used by saddlers all over the world to cut leather? The blade was initially made from native copper or else iron from meteorites. The appearance of Russian and European whale hunters enabled the Inuit to barter for good quality steel. As for the handle, it was made essentially from materials originating from animals that the Inuit hunted or fished.

Traditionally the ulu was made with a caribou antler, muskox horn or walrus ivory handle and slate cutting surface, due to the lack of metal smelting technology in the Arctic. The handle could also be carved from bone, and wood was sometimes used when it was available. In certain areas, such as Ulukhaktok Northwest Territories, copper was used for the cutting surface.

Today the ulu is still often made with a caribou antler handle but the blade is usually made of steel. The steel is quite often obtained by purchasing a handsaw or wood saw and cutting the blade to the correct shape. A hardwood called sisattaq is also used for handles. These uluit are both kept for home use and sold to others. It is also possible to purchase commercially produced uluit, sometimes made with a plastic handle and complete with a cutting board.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

The Douk-Douk – The Conquest of Africa

At the start of the last century, Antoine Cognet became the head of the firm Soanen Mondanel, a cutler in Thiers. They had been manufacturing folding knives that had been developed in 1835 by La Coutellerie Francaise, whose blades were stamped with a hare. Gaspard Cognet, who curiously enough everyone called Gaston, succeeded his father, but was soon faced with major difficulties, the French economy being in a somewhat shaky state after the First World War. In Addition, exports, which had been a major source of revenue, had crumbled, and so it was vital to find new markets.

That was how Gaston had the idea, in 1929, of designing a good quality-folding knife for daily use at an affordable price. It was a very flat knife, the handle of which was simply a piece of folded sheet metal, onto which was fixed a blade swiveling on an axis and held by a spring. It was essential that this blade be forged from the best steel and that its cutting edge be tough enough to handle anything. Once the knife had been produced, all that remained was to find a country to export it to. Which one did they choose? Melanesia!!

Why did they choose the collection of Pacific Islands? Because it was far away, unknown and totally free from commercial invasion. Gaston, who was neither short of audacity nor of imagination, set about looking for a name that would favor the sale of his new baby. He researched this far-off country with its strange beliefs, and a picture decorating the cover of an old book grabbed his attention: a character covered in feathers, wearing a pointed hat and with bare legs. His name? Douk-Douk! Such an original name, pronounced in all languages, and such an unusual silhouette would clearly stand out. The idea was received with enthusiasm!

However, perhaps he should have gone a little further in his research concerning the significance of this figure, since Douk-Douk embodies the sprit of punishment for the Melanesians and plays the role of scaring those who have something to fear or to hide. The brand was registered in 1930 and production started on a grand scale, but the attempt to conquer these distant South Sea Islands met with total failure. It was never clear if this was due to the unfortunate choice of symbol, but Gaston Cognet was not a man to be shaken by such setbacks, and he soon set sail for another destination, North Africa.

This time, the knife found immediate success, with 98 percent of production being exported. After trying their hand in North Africa, why shouldn’t they try heading south, before turning their attention to Lebanon or Indochina? Everywhere it went the knife was received with greater appreciation than they dared hope, but the reasons for this success had little top do with luck. In fact, the quality of the cutting edge was remarkable, with the blade made from fine carbon steel, forded in special ovens burning hardwood charcoal, followed by a special tempering process in the workshop. In addition, so that each country would have its own connection with the knife, others, including a lion, a fox and a Southern Cross, replaced the original effigy. Also models were named the “Tiki” the “El Baraka” the “Saharien” and the “Ed-Dib”. This impact was such that for certain people the Douk-Douk became a currency.

To have had an idea of designing and producing such a knife during a lean economic period, simple, cheap, light, flat to the point that its owner would forget it was in their pocket. While ensuring an uncompromisingly high quality blade and creating a whole legend surrounding it, really is a magnificent and amazing feat worthy of much admiration, particularly if one considers that it had been necessary to roam distant lands at a time when such places were conspicuous neither by their economy nor safety for Europeans!