SHEFFIELD CUTLERY (19th Century -) During the 19th Century, Sheffield, a city and borough in South Yorkshire, England, acquired a worldwide reputation for steel production. Known as the ‘Steel City,’ many advances in the industry were developed in the area and include crucible and stainless steel. International competition in iron and steel caused a decline in these industries during the 1970s and 80s that coincided with the collapse of coal mining in the area.
At the close of the 20th Century, there remained about 100 cutlery companies in Sheffield that are associated with upmarket table cutlery or flatware as the industry calls it. Among these are Arthur Price of England and Hiram Wild.
The earliest Sheffield Cutlery firm was originally established in 1898 as Yates Brothers. That company made caps and adapters – known as ferrules – for the cutlery industry. Despite its modest start, the company grew into one of Sheffield’s major suppliers to cutlery manufacturers. Today, it remains the only family owned cutlery component manufacturer in Sheffield. The company continues to manufacture caps and ferrules along with a wide range of cutlery handles in stainless steel, nickel and sterling silver that is sold throughout the UK as well as internationally.
One of the most prominent of the larger companies is Richardson Sheffield. Its history goes back to 1839, and while the company was mostly an also- ran in the industry, it transformed itself at the end of the 20th Century into an international player in the kitchen knife market mostly due to the development of the Laser knife.
Now the biggest knife producer in Europe – larger than the Finnish-owned Kitchen Devils – Richardson Sheffield’s exports accounts for at least fifty percent of its sales. Like many survivors, Richardson Sheffield owes its continued existence to a change of ownership. In 1960 the company was bought by Jerry Hahn, an American entrepreneur seeking a European blade maker for his knife business.
Hahn receives a good deal of the credit for the1980 development of the Laser knife. The innovation catapulted Richardson into a major breakthrough when great names such as Viners, – one of the largest cutlers in the city – and Richards, a pocket-knife maker, were losing money and customers.
Billed as ‘the knife that never needs sharpening’ and sold with a 25-year guarantee, the Laser knife has been the company’s most popular item for nearly 15 years. Its innovation is the unusual serration on scalloped edges, which optimizes the cutting angle of the knife.
The market was initially skeptical about the Laser knife, but, by 1982, the concept was firmly established. The innovations that helped Richardson develop the Laser knife are still in place at the company even though Hahn sold the business to Macpherson, an Australian house-products group, in 1986.
The company’s two factories in Sheffield (Companies must be based within the city limits to use ‘Sheffield’ in the firm’s name) are highly automated and it develops its own machinery if it cannot find what it wants in the market. It is a system that has helped Richardson develop knives for individual markets.
In the Company’s display room there are short, dagger-type knives aimed at the Italian market, where they are used to hack at parmesan cheese. For the German market there is a serrated knife with large holes so the blade does not get wedged in the cheese. And for the Finns, the company developed a long, double- ended knife for mushroom-picking that features a blade at one end to slice off the stalk and a brush at the other to remove the earth.
Roughly half of the company’s production is sold to other manufacturers. Thus other producers, like Hoffritz and J. A. Henckels of West Germany, which specialize in costly kitchen knives, may be better known but Richardson Sheffield is believed to be the highest-volume producer of kitchen knives and blades in the world.