Sound of hammering and filing reverberate around the workshop in Prey Sala village that is home to a most unus-ual craft – the art of making swords and high-quality knives.
Frenchman Christophe Hiriart de Saint is the designer and manager at Citadel, the biggest knife workshop in Cambodia, and the man who oversees the production process from the first step in forging the blades to adding the final decorative touches to handles.
“What we care about is quality, not quantity,” he explains as he lifts up a long, solid knife and rapidly shaves the hair from his arm to demonstrate just how razor-sharp the blade is.
“Before finishing our products, we have to discuss with our customers what they require or order, and we must spend a whole day inspecting the knife and doing the finishing touches,” Hiriat de Saint says.
Surprisingly, knife shapes and styles go in and out of fashion, just like everything else.
“Design is quite hard, as we have to think as far as a year in advance of the most popular models and styles of our knives,” Hiriat de Saint says.
“Several years ago, for instance, Europeans tended to use big knives, but now they prefer using smaller knives that they can carry with them every day, such as our folding models.”
About 70 workers make the knives by hand from imported steel. More experienced workers train the newcomers, who can earn as much as $160 a month for the special craft skills needed.
“We can produce between 10 and 20 knives a day, but sometimes customers order special designs and these can take a lot longer to make,” Hiriart de Saint says.
The range includes knives for hunting, combat, kitchens and tab-les, while handles can be elabor-ately carved from buffalo horn, leather or wood.
Something as elaborate as a tradit-ional sabre could take 10 days to finish, Hiriart de Saint says. And whereas a cooking knife will cost about US$100, a custom-made sword could top US$2,000.
“Sometimes we have a special order for three or four katana swords from abroad, from collectors in countries like Japan, Russia, France, America, Italy, Spain and Taiwan,” Hiriart de Saint says.
Former car paint sprayer Nov Pich, 35, has worked at Citadel for the past seven years.
“I had to study for about five months to be able to make knives, and we need to know foreign languages too,” says Nov Pich, who is originally from Kampong Cham province.
Blacksmith Man Math, 50, says he learned his trade for 20 years before refining his skills at Citadel and learning how to craft custom-made katana swords.
“Before, I used to pound metal and make normal knives, but here I can actually make high-quality, professional blades such as katana swords – skills that earn me a bit more money based on the market demand,” Man Math says.
For other workers, however, the job is just a means to another end.
“I had to drop out of school after grade nine, and now I want to save money so I can open a chicken farm in the future,” 22-year-old Khon Srors says.
Citadel has a workshop near the Phnom Penh International Airport and two showrooms in Cambodia: at 10, Street 110 at the corner of Sisowath Quay, Phnom Penh, tel 012 802 676; and at 157, Street 7, corner Street 155 (Sivutha) in Siem Reap.