Some people are content to live through the stories of others. The James Brand was not conceptualized with these people in mind. Rather, its ideal customers are people who want to make their own stories, and are up for their fair share of adventure in doing so. If you think a knife is just a knife, one of two reasons is probably responsible for this mindset: Either you haven’t yet experienced the James Brand or you just don’t “get” it. Here’s a closer look at what makes this one-of-a-kind maker of pocket knives and more than a cut above the rest.
A Distinctive City, A Distinctive Brand
Portland, Oregon is routinely hailed as one of the country’s most unique destinations. Of the Pacific Northwest’s second largest city, it is said that “Portland is the kind of city you visit for two days and then move to.” With great beer, cheap food, funky neighborhoods and forest hikes, you can’t ask for much more.
It’s also the kind of city that gives birth to inimitable artisanry produced by the likes of the James Brand, which made its debut in Portland in 2012 after a group of like-minded designers and adventures — led by Ryan Coulter, former director of product innovation at Nike, and rounded out by Sam Amis and Kevin Callahan — joined forces to create something new and exciting: Knives which echoed in their distinctiveness the zeitgeist of their hometown while drawing influence from real people with real problems to solve.
From the beginning, the James Brand has pushed the boundaries of what people should be able to expect from their knives. The implication: If the pocket knife in your hand isn’t a James Brand knife, you’re inherently limited in terms of what you can do.
And while its Portland neighbors are knife-making industry big blade brands including Leatherman, CRKT, Benchmade and Gerber, the James Brand has carved out a name for itself.
If the pocket knife in your hand isn’t a James Brand knife, you’re inherently limited in terms of what you can do.
Of course, no discussion of Portland is complete without mention of its robust population of outdoor enthusiasts who’ve sought the city out for its extraordinary hiking, hunting, climbing, biking, and boating. They, too, add to the list of reasons why the James Brand has survived and thrived.
It’s also worth noting that the James Brand team isn’t just brilliant at designing knives and other carry items; it is also brilliant at branding. (Another attribute it shares with Portland.) “Beyond the knife, we wanted to build a top to bottom brand experience that mattered – where everything from packaging to storytelling worked together to deliver an experience that was meaningful, something our friends would want to be a part of,” they say.
From Inspiration to Inception
We’ve all heard the saying, “If you want something done right, do it yourself.” This spirit has guided Coulter and his team in their effort to design an entirely new breed of knife which reflected their values by fusing premium materials with a modern design vibe.
Coulter’s abiding appreciation for pocket knives dates back to his childhood in Indiana coal country, when his first one was passed down to him by his father. (Coulter’s mother also carried a pocket knife.) He told Gear Patrol of his early reflection on knife design, which spurred him to create the James Brand, “I always thought like, man this thing is so handy and so good to have around and I love it but it could definitely be better; surely there has to be something that’s closer to what I’m actually looking for or that I would be more connected to than this.”
Coulter’s abiding appreciation for pocket knives dates back to his childhood in Indiana coal country, when his first one was passed down to him by his father.
It’s this perspective and this drive to create a next-level collection of knives that makes the James Brand stand out. Their products are, quite simply, better.
Creating Less But Better Stuff
No one would argue that the James Brand is a paragon of productivity. In fact, while other knife companies are churning out model after model, the James Brand’s entire line of knives can be counted on two hands, which Coulter says is entirely by design. “Our philosophy has always been to make less stuff and make that stuff better,” he says. And they’re winning at the game. Their products are sleek, sharp, and subtly beautiful. The fact that they are exceptionally well-made is icing on the cake.
Coulter further insists that this approach is the James Brand’s differentiating factor. “I think our focus on modern, minimal everyday carry is really the thing that sets us apart. We don’t do machetes. We don’t do hunting and skinning knives. We are very focused on knives and tools that people would actually carry with them every day. We want to be in your pocket, with you all the time,” he said in an interview with outdoor retailer Wayward Collective.
Finding Your “Everyday Carry”
On that note, the James Brand is built on the idea of “everyday carry.” Rooted in the principle that some things will never go digital, James Brand tools are innately purposeful: the more they’re used, the more valuable they are. And whatever the age or era, well-made tools have staying power.
Wondering which knife might be right for you? First, consider the James Brand’s flagship pocket knife, the Chapter. A reimagining of the classic folding knife available in a breadth and depth of blade types and finishes, it’s built for hard use and low maintenance. Says Coulter of carrying a Chapter, “I just love the minimalism of the form. I love the way the action feels. Mine is always the black with the chrome blade. The Chapter has a special place in my heart, it was the very first one that we did. It’s small, it’s minimal, it’s titanium, it’s still kind of my baby. I think a lot of us feel that way.”
On the flip side is the James Brand’s newest knife, the small but mighty Elko, “I don’t go anywhere without an Elko, ever,” insists Coulter.
Not only does the James Brand believe in the everyday carry, but its brand mission asserts that “the knife you carry says something about you.” For example, Coulter says of the hard use his Folsom gets around the house on the weekends, “I hope it says I work hard, pay attention to detail, and that I’m always ready for whatever is going to happen next.”
Still think knives are only for camping trips? Coulter begs to differ, and he’s out to change your mind. “I would challenge [you] to carry a knife for two or three weeks and then see how useful it is. I probably use my knife between 10 and 20 times a day, but I often use it for some pretty mundane activities: cleaning out dirt underneath my fingernails (gross), slicing up an apple, opening the mail, opening up boxes, digging up a weed in the yard, etc. Once you get used to having a knife around and using it all the time it’s very hard to go without one. Any time you leave the house without your blade you feel naked,” he says.
The James Brand’s first multi-tool, the Ellis, also merits a mention. Consisting of a partially-serrated blade, screwdriver/bottle opener, and scraper tool, the Ellis draws inspiration from Swiss Army — with a practical twist: Unlike Swiss Army Knives, the Ellis locks, which reduce the risk of users closing the blade on their fingers. Plus, its pared-down design foregoes extraneous features like magnifying glasses and awls thereby supporting the tool’s conveniently compact size. Explains Coulter, “We were focused on what can you take out of this, what’s the most minimal thing you can do and still make a multi-tool?”
Beyond the Knife
While knives are the bread and butter of the James Brand, its products aren’t limited to knives. The company carries over its iconic ethos to other products as well, including everything from sleek, high-performance keychains to notebooks and pens.
Which brings us to another noteworthy thing about the James Brand: The company’s willingness to grow and evolve. Just because you don’t see a particular product today doesn’t mean it won’t be available tomorrow — especially if the James Brand team determines that there’s a need for it. Reports Carryology’s David Vo in reflecting on the “we’re still learning” attitude embedded in the company’s DNA, “They’ll be the first to admit that they aren’t experts at this. They aren’t metallurgists or experts in blade geometries. But, they are getting there. They saw a void in the market and they are doing their best to put out knives that the James in all of us would be proud to carry and use.”
All of which begs the question: Who is James? The answer is an unexpected — and yet unsurprising — one. According to the James Brand leadership team, he’s Everyman. Amis told Carryology, “Our target audience is people like us. Designers, skaters, surfers, creatives, city dwellers that love to escape the city when we can.” But even if you’re a hardcore city slicker with no plans to venture off the grid anytime soon, a James Brand knife will not only come in handy around the office, but will also boost your ofice cred in the process.
If there was such a thing as the Apple of knife brands, the James Brand might lay claim to the title.
If there was such a thing as the Apple of knife brands, the James Brand might lay claim to the title thanks to its visionary leadership, inventive products, and a commitment to integrating the utilitarian alongside the aesthetic. The takeaway? It’s not so much a matter of whether you need a James Brand knife, but of which James Brand knife will become your constant companion for — and accomplice to — the adventures ahead.