Robert Waldorf Loveless, 51, is standing before a polishing wheel, buffing the blade of a hunting knife. It is midnight. On the radio, Bessie Smith wails Empty Bed Blues. Loveless, a big man with a voice to match, has been working for 12 hours. He's wearing jeans, a workshirt embroidered with Japanese characters, a Rolex watch and a cocked, locked and loaded .45 automatic Colt Commander pistol. A gaily striped cap—a facsimile of the pre-World War II Japanese Army summer forage model—covers his graying hair.
Loveless holds up the shimmering knife for inspection, flipping a set of homemade 7-power magnifying lenses over his safety glasses. His huge hands are covered with calluses, cuts, steel grit and grease, but he holds the seven-ounce object as comfortably as a surgeon holds a scalpel. His eyes travel over his handiwork, centimeter by magnified centimeter. Sighting down the cutting edge, he roars suddenly at the ceiling, "God, Loveless, you sure as hell have a lot to learn about making knives!"
The experts don't agree with him. In the opinion of hunters, guides, collectors and fellow bladesmen, Loveless is the best knifemaker in the world. And they proclaim their praise with reverence. Gene Hill, hunter and outdoors author: "A Loveless knife is like a Purdy shotgun—classic, elegant and unsurpassed." Ed Weinberger, friend, outdoorsman and collector: "No knife has the density, the feel of a Loveless. It's a work of art, and it's an extension of your arm." A.G. Russell, knifemaker, honorary president of the Knifemakers' Guild and custom-knife broker: "You can say that this knifemaker's grinding is better than Bob's, or that that one's polishing is better. But overall, he makes the best handmade knife in the modern world. When you hold a Loveless, you know that it's something very, very special."
Loveless fighting knives hang on the belts of many army staff officers around the free world, are used by Special Forces A teams and find their way into the boots of CIA operatives. His hunting knives are worked hard by Montana cowboys, Texas guides and Alaskan trappers.
But a substantial number of Loveless blades lie in the dustproof velvet cases of the collectors, who don white gloves before touching them lest a fingerprint mar their perfection. And that is a fact that pains the master.
In the booming custom-knife-collecting market, Loveless blades are almost worth their weight in gold. Over the past few years, several Loveless knives have sold for $3,000. Lovelesses are so much in demand that their maker is five years behind in filling the orders that pour into his shop. A few months ago he stopped taking orders altogether, sending the collectors into the kind of frenzied bidding that attends the death of a famous painter.
To those of us who buy a $15 sheath knife in a hardware store, it's difficult to understand what makes a hunting knife worth $3,000. It is a question that bothers Loveless as much as anyone.
The master of the cutting edge lives on the outskirts of Riverside, Calif., 60 miles and light-years southeast of Beverly Hills. Here pickup trucks pick up bales of hay and bags of seed instead of Bo Derek imitators. The pastel paint on the clapboard houses is washed out and peeling. The sign on the local liquor store is made of bare light bulbs, and across the road from Loveless' small decaying yellow house, a mongrel dog chained to a stained bathtub in a front yard yaps endlessly.
Now Loveless is having dinner in his tiny kitchen at one of those long Formica-topped tables folks rent for backyard wedding receptions. Before him are his .45 on top of a volume of Ansel Adams nature photographs, a television with a five-inch screen tuned to the news, a book called The Rich and the Super-rich and a Braun lighter that is included in the Museum of Modern Art's design collection. On a cracked plastic plate are a filet mignon and an Oriental noodle dish prepared by Loveless' Japanese wife, Yoshiko. It is a mad collage: East meets West, gun advocate vs. environmentalist, the meticulous artist vs. the patently shabby.
Loveless is given to sudden philosophical outbursts. Furiously gumming his steak—he has two sets of false teeth but they irritate him, so he usually wears neither—he blurts out, "Our lives are mired in detritus. Objects own us; they keep us from our creativity. The kind of American who acquires a lot of expensive things so that he can show them off to his peer group and thereby acquire more status is the kind of American that makes me puke.