Last April, a new documentary film, Robert Loveless — An American Legend was premiered in Los Angeles.
The DVD version is now available.
I bought a copy and watched it with enjoyment over the weekend.
The film does a fine job of telling the strange story of Bob Loveless, a poor boy from Ohio with an extraordinary talent for design, who began making custom knives on shipboard while working as a sailor on the Great Lakes, selling them at first through the old Abercrombie & Fitch. When the free-spending and quality-obsessed late 1960s arrived, Bob Loveless’s custom knives were quickly recognized as something quite extraordinary and became for many collectors an obsession.
Production came nowhere near meeting demand and the prices being paid for Loveless knives on the re-sale market went out of control. Loveless himself naturally resented the fact that his customers were commonly walking out the door and re-selling his work for a few thousands of dollars profit.
Loveless never significantly increased production, though he apparently essentially turned all the actual knife-making over to a friend named Jim Merrit. But he did jack his prices up in an ongoing, but ultimately unsuccessful, attempt to deter profiteering.
I talked to Bob Loveless about ordering a knife myself, back in the 1980s. He was surly and hostile, and spoke of 5-10 years wait on orders, and was asking, at that time, for $100-an-inch for a knife. It sounded as if both prices and delivery dates were completely arbitrary. Loveless was clearly intentionally discouraging ordering. He told me that nobody really needed a Loveless knife, and it was clear he was sick of the pressure from all the fame and fandom.
I thought that kind of pricing was ridiculous. The uncertain time interval was too great, and I didn’t like Loveless’s hostility toward customers so I gave up on the idea of placing an order. Watching the film, I see that he eventually started charging $5000 and up per knife and that still didn’t deter orders.
The movie made it clear that Bob Loveless lost interest in knife-making, and got well and truly fed up with fame, but like everybody else he enjoyed the money that poured in and indulged himself, buying guns, watches, cars, and planes.
As the years went by and Loveless grew old, his crankiness, eccentricity, and displays of arrogance increased, but he was also capable of great gestures of kindness and generosity.
I guess the Loveless story really demonstrates that success is a bitch goddess who has to ruin everything she touches. Once Bob Loveless became really famous, only filthy rich collectors (aka suckers) and friends already wired into his personal network would ever get their hands on a Loveless knife. Loveless became rich in a small-scale way, but the knife-making stopped being fun for him a long, long time ago.
But Bob Loveless was such a great designer that his style was adopted by half the custom knife makers working today, so practically identical imitations are everywhere.
Watching Jim Merrit making Loveless knives was fascinating. I couldn’t help noticing that the Loveless shop only made knives via stock removal and then sent the blades outside to be heat-treated. By contrast, other renowned makers like Moran, Randall, Dennehey, and Seguine forged all of their larger knives and did everything, including heat treatment, themselves.
Whatever one’s reservations, one is obliged to admit that Loveless’s knives are all absolutely beautiful. They are all essentially variations on the same design, but what a marvelous design, and what superb variations they are. There can be no doubt that Bob Loveless was unsurpassed as a custom knife maker. In the originality and intrinsic merit of his designs, the breadth of his influence, and in the level of admiration from customers and the prices his work has commanded, no one else has ever come even close.