The current centers of fine cutlery and chef knife manufacturing all have one very important thing in common. That is a long history in the art of steel manufacture and they were all centers for their individual countries in the sword making trade. In more recent times these “sword centers” have become “personal grooming” centers as well.
There are many “centers” in several countries; Thiers in France, Scheffield in England and Toledo in Spain are good examples. The two giants in the industry today are Solingen in Germany and Seki in Japan. These two cities host a myriad of knife brands and are home to razor, personal grooming and scissor companies as well.
Solingen is also known as Klingenstadt or “City of blades”, renowned for the manufacturing of fine swords, knives, scissors and razors. JA Henckels, Wustoff, Dovo, Boeker, FDick, and Victorinox are all companies of international repute. Many of these companies are directly associated with sword making going back for centuries. They have now specialized into different niches. Dovo (Razors), Victorinox (Swiss Army Knives) Boeker (Swords and Daggers) are examples of just a few.
In Seki you will find a similar situation; its craftsmen’s centuries old association with the famous “Samurai” sword. When swords were outlawed in 1876 the local smith’s turned to cutlery and began producing kitchen knives. Today some of the industry leaders from are Kai, Mac, Kasumi, Kanetsume, Global and a host of American companies whose knives are also made here. Here a a few of the US companies; Spyderco, Cold Steel, Junglee, Walther, Al Mar, SOG, and Browning.
One of the largest companies in Seki is the Kai group. It began in 1908 as a small manufacturer of pocket knives. Along the way it got involved in razor’s and personal grooming. Today there are several divisions and it is a giant in the fine kitchen cutlery and chef knife department. Interestingly in 1980 they established a division in Solingen Germany.
JA Henckels, the famous German company of “Twins” fame returned the favor by establishing the Miyabi company in Seki in 2004. Their Japanese line of knives melds the best of German steel making with the beauty and grace of Japanese artistry. The steel smiths of Seki have taken their steel making to an art form, producing much harder steels than their German cousins.
Which is better? There is a trade-off, the high end German made and Japanese chef knives are both beautiful. Both arrive from the factory with very sharp blades. Over time the softer steel knives will dull more quickly than their harder counterparts.
The kicker is this, to sharpen a German steel, 20 degree beveled, knife requires much less effort. Five minutes on a 1000 grit stone, a steel and maybe a strop and you are back in business. Versus the very hard Japanese steel 15 degree beveled, which requires the 1000 grit stone and then a 6000 grit water stone to fine polish the edge and restore its’ narrower edge. A professional can do this quickly, an amateur can easily make the knife duller than it was. In fact, most of the Japanese companies recommend that the knife be returned for factory sharpening.
This has been simplified a bit as there are certainly many knives from both Seki and Solingen made with harder and softer steels. Today more than ever before there is so much science an technology in developing steels that each company works to develop the very best product the consumer can buy.
The JA Henckels Professional, the Henckels Miyabi 5000 and 7000 lines and the Kai Shun Classic and Collectors knives are equally pleasing to my eye. Which one should you get is going to depend more on your taste. With either decision you will indeed get a very high quality set. The Chefknivestogo site has an extensive selection and a boatload of great information to help you decide.