Buster Warenski's face reflects years of sun, wind, and the hunt for earthly treasures. In a ten-gallon Stetson and black ray-skin cowboy boots, he treks regularly into the high desert mountains near his home in Richfield, Utah, carrying a pick and shovel. He returns with raw blocks of marble, jade, agate, and red beryllium, a stone so rare it is found in only one deposit in the world, 60 miles from his house. "I can go for a walk almost anywhere and just looking at the ground in front of me find semiprecious stones," he says. "They're all around you once you learn to see them."
For more than three decades, the 60-year-old Warenski has been incorporating such found materials into exquisite decorative knives in a small workshop behind his house. Following a standard of craftsmanship tracing back to the swordsmiths of the royal courts of Europe and Asia, he fashions fewer than two dozen knives a year, each one-of-a-kind. One recently finished knife has a handle made from a block of lapis lazuli; another uses a slab of fossilized, 100-million-year-old Allosaurus bone which Warenski found while foraging one day.
"Knives are the oldest tool man has," says Edward Stitt, a collector in Carmel, California, who bought his first Warenski 20 years ago and now owns five. "They embody our instinct for survival. Buying them is like stamp collecting--you'll never use them, but you want them because they're rare and beautiful." Indeed, in recent years, as contemporary American ceramics, textiles, furniture, and glass have gained greater recognition, with exhibitions in venues such as the Museum of Modern Art, knives have gained appreciation as an art form.
"There are knifemakers in this country doing wonderful work,avidly collected by connoisseurs," says David Revere McFadden, chief curator at the American Craft Museum. "In the high-tech age, handcraftsmanship survives." Steven D'Lack, director-owner of Hawthorn Galleries in Branson, Missouri, adds, "Warenski is the father of the art knife, the man who started it all. He set the standard."
In 1997, Warenski created Fire and Ice, a knife of solid 18-karat gold inlaid with diamonds and rubies. Its sinuous lines and bilateral symmetry mark it unmistakably as a Warenski. "I draw all the time," he says, "and usually I'll combine several sketches into a finished design before I begin the three-dimensional work. Then I'll give it the time it needs."
In the case of Fire and Ice, that meant half a year of painstaking labor. Warenski cast molten gold in a hand-carved steel mold and cold-forged the blade to its basic form. The serpentine gold guard was cast by the ancient lost-wax process and the handle ground into shape from a large crystal of Brazilian quartz before the jewels were set. His wife, Julie, then devoted three months to hand-finishing Fire and Ice, using a microscope to help her engrave arabesques in the guard and pommel. Along the length of the knife's gold sheath she applied densely chromatic areas of enamel. Such attention to detail makes these knives highly prized by collectors; another of Warenski's gold knives, Gem of the Orient, which he made in 1991, was resold by a Japanese collector that same year for an enormous profit. The collector's asking price: $1.3 million.
Warenski has worked with his hands all his life. "I started out as a kid, flint-knapping," he says, referring to the process of shaping flint with a stone to create edged tools such as arrowheads. He acquired his knifemaking skills by studying the work of older craftsmen. "It's a cooperative, not competitive, profession," he says. "We learn from each other."
After months of work, "the great moment comes when I wipe the fingerprints off the finished piece and lay it on the bench," Warenski says. I ask him about his next project. "It will have a blade of solid platinum, a handle of white Burmese jade, twenty carats of rubies, and twelve carats of baguette diamonds." As he traces the outlines of his phantom knife in the air he can't keep from smiling.
Warenski knives are priced from $3,000 to $150,000 $; for information: 435-896-5319; www.warenskiknives.com.
$ Establishment accepts no charge/credit cards or accepts cards other than the American Express Card.