Interview: Véronique Laurent

 Interview: Véronique Laurent

"Girls do not make knives". That’s what the Belgian, Véronique Laurent was always told. Fortunately, she is quite stubborn. Since 2015, Véronique is one of the four female master smiths in the American Bladesmith Society. Which, in itself is already quite exclusive with approximately 115 members.

During a convention someone once asked Véronique Laurent how long it had taken her to make one of her knives. "Twelve years", she replied. To be clear, she had not been working on that particular knife for that long. It was the length of time it had taken her to learn the craft: "C'est les années avant qui le font". This is characteristic of someone who takes her craft very seriously and it reflects well on the appropriateness of her title: ‘Master Bladesmith’. Initially, her passion lay in forging and not in knifes. Her pursuit of forging led her to attend the ‘Fête du Fer’, the Feast of the Iron, in Brittany in 2004. This is where her career began. The Belgian Knife Society had set up a stand at the ‘Fête du Fer’ where forge demonstrations were given. She met Jacques Uffelen, who proposed that she follow an internship in Belgium where she encountered people like Jean-François Colla and Achim Wirtz. Véronique remembers this time fondly. "My first internship was in August, in a small workshop with four coal fires. If you survive that and still like it, you have found your passion". "I did demonstrations with René Bol. He really helped me. I assisted him and he taught me to make a folding knife. A blacksmith shop was opened in Charleroi with the help of BKS. I spent every Friday there. You had all the tools, the equipment, the friends. Unfortunately, that lasted only two years". Subsequently her partner, MichelS, built her a hydraulic press, a belt grinder, an electrical oven and other necessities.

In 2010, a French collector called a meeting and invited about fifty blade smiths for a few days. Véronique met with Gary Headrick and Joe Keeslar of the American Bladesmith Society (ABS). She became excited about their training system, and did not think long on following their curriculum. "The beauty is that they share all their knowledge. You get all the information you need to move forwards. It is very motivating." After spending two years as an apprentice, Véronique became Journeyman Smith in 2012. During this time, she had to make five knives from homogeneous carbon steel in three different sizes and models. The knives were reviewed by members of the guild for quality, fit and finish at the Blade Show in Atlanta. She graduated in 2013. The next step was another series of five blades, this time for the title of Master Smith. One of the knives had to be a dagger following a European model with a handle with silver wire. The remaining four were to be knives of her own choosing. In the phase between Journeyman and Master Smith Véronique met two important people. One was the Brazilian Master Smith Rodrigo Sfreddo. Véronique followed a three-week internship with him in Brazil; "he taught me the beauty of damask". The second was Master Smith John White in Atlanta. One of his specialties was fully dismountable knife. Veronique learned it from him, but in October 2014, when she had just completed her first dismountable knife, White died unexpectedly. In tribute Véronique made her four 'free' Master Smith knives in 2015 in the spirit of the two men: in damask and dismountable. These were large knifes, which she has been making ever since. "I almost exclusively make Bowies now. Very traditional".These five knives were also evaluated in Atlanta. Véronique: "The moment you wait for the decision of the jury is indescribable. They call all five candidates inside. And when you hear that you did it, you don’t quite realize what’s happened". With the title of Master Smith added to her name Véronique became a member of an exclusive group with approximately 115 members worldwide, including three in Europe: Jean-Paul Thevenot, Jean Louis Regal and Véronique herself.

The title of Master Smith brings with it a certain status, which is not unpleasant. Véronique: "I notice that it is recognized. People know the concept of Master Smith, and that is also recognized. The ABS is respected, it has a reputation. It gives a "vrai statue”. Collectors are starting to know me. I get a better stand at some shows". The recognition is justified, Véronique thinks. "I wasn’t just given something. I did not become a Master Smith by having dinner with the president. It is a great personal investment. You're working for months on these five blades. It took me from December 2014 to June 2015. You have to do your very best because you can’t stop and ask if it’s enough”. Good tools are essential in her profession says Véronique. "People think that a craftsman has to suffer. I am very sorry, but this is the 21st century, we use machines. The time you win, you can spend on finish, your materials, etcetera. I recently purchased a CNC machine. First, I need to learn how to use it. I don’t know how long it will take me but that’s not important”.

"Girls do not make knives”. It keeps amazing Véronique how persistent that prejudice is. "A few years ago, there was a group in Gembloux on Friday. I then made all big knives. One of the men said, what a beautiful knife, may I speak to the smith? I said: that’s me. He looks at me and says, okay, but I would like to speak to the smith". "Another time someone stands in front of my table with my knife in his hands. He asks: Who made that? I said: I did. He throws the knife on the table and walks away! However, I do have a drawback -  I do not look like someone who makes big knives". In the meantime she has learned to live with it. Moreover, Véronique only makes knives to her own taste, and hardly ever to order. "I cannot take orders. It has to be ready at a specific time and I cannot stand that".

Does Véronique have an advice for young knife makers? She thinks for a while, then: "Never forget that you make a knife. A knife is a cutting tool. A knife must have geometry, a good heat treatment. It needs to cut, that is its essence. After that, you can do whatever you want. But these basics are often lacking with novices. Nowadays it is more passion for the money than the knife. That's embarrassing. Making blades is a profession. It takes time to learn that. That is my most important advice".

Text and photos: Bas Martens