The moment Arnon Kartmazov knew he had found his life’s passion he was crawling in the dirt to the nearest water faucet having just climbed out of the furnace-hot forging pit of a Japanese master blacksmith. He had hammered a hunk of raw steel into shape for what seemed like an eternity. He sat under a tree with his mentor, sipping tea, mopping his face, and marveling at the sun dipping into the ocean. He was bone tired and filthy, crusted with dried sweat when he decided right then and there that he’d be doing this for the rest of his life.
Arnon was born in Siberia in the former USSR and moved to Israel where, after fulfilling his military service, he found his way to East Asian Studies in university. When he found the time, he hung around the shop of the last surviving blacksmith in Jerusalem, drawn in by the explosion of sparks from the forge, the clang of hot steel.
He’d always had a primal attraction to fire, light, and heat. As a boy he’d sneak off in his grandparents’ apartment to build tiny fires in ashtrays, feeding the flames match by match, feeling the thrill of controlling such a powerful element.
Once out of school, he decided to spend a year or so in Japan to develop his language fluency. He ended up staying there for a dozen years, captivated by its culture of craftsmanship. “I was completely taken in by the aesthetics,” said Arnon. He apprenticed with two blacksmiths and a sword maker. He met the woman who would become his wife. He opened his own shop in the hills of northern Kyoto.
Eventually they decided to move to the States. In 2000, they rented a car in Santa Cruz and drove the coast north. When they reached Portland, things felt right. Arnon immediately resonated with the craft scene. The giant trees reminded him of the Siberian forests of his childhood.
“I’m never moving again. First, because we really like it here. Second, because I have an enormous amount of heavy equipment and the thought of moving gives me a headache.”
These days Arnon’s main trade is meticulously hand-crafted chef’s knives. He was completely floored the first time he walked into a Japanese shop with the full range of kitchen knives on display. A wall of gorgeous functional objects—beautiful tools. Four different kinds of knife for one fish. More varieties of knives than any one person could possibly use, he thought. He noticed the hand-forged texture remained and recognized the beauty of the process revealed.
“It’s very Japanese to not remove every mark of the process that created the object,” he said. “They shave away everything on a knife that’s not essential and then make sure the essentials work really, really well,” he said.
The Santoku style is one of his most popular knives at Bridgetown Forge—his take on the traditional “Three Virtues” knife, designed versatile enough to cut fish, meat, and vegetables equally well. It’s the knife he most often gives to family and friends. He takes note if it’s not the first knife they reach for. He made a left-handed Santoku for his wife. There isn’t another in the world quite like it. He says as hard as he may try, he could never create an exact replica of any knife.
“With a good knife, you simply don't think about it. You can concentrate on actually preparing your meal. That's what a good tool does for you—it allows you to completely forget that it exists.”
Arnon also makes tools for other craftspeople: woodworkers, ceramicists, jewelry makers, leatherworkers. There was a time when blacksmiths were crucial tradespeople to the functioning of local economies. Sometimes as he swings his hammer, pounding steel into shape, he thinks about his connection to the thousands of years of tradition of this craft. He thinks about his mentors in Japan, that ancient smith in Jerusalem. He’s not precious about his trade though. He’s playful. Afterall, he gets to tinker with fire for a living, making lovely useful things.
“Life with no tools, where would man be?” he asks. “Without tools, we're just clever animals.”