There’s not much to a pocket knife — a blade and a handle, maybe it folds, maybe it fits onto a keychain or clips into a pocket. But under closer inspection, there’s a lot more than that. There are the materials: stainless steel, carbon steel, Damascus steel, titanium, nylon, micarta, wood. There are straight and serrated edges, clip points and tanto tips, automatic actions and gut hooks. The pocket knife, at first unassuming, implies infinite possibilities.
Ryan Coulter, the founder of the James Brand, focuses on just a few of them. While the big knife companies put out hundred-plus page product catalogs on a yearly basis, the James Brand has released only four knives (and one tool) since the brand’s founding in 2016. But those blades — the Chapter, the County, the Folsom and the Elko — are subtly perfect. They’re sleek; they’re sharp; they’re made with quality materials. They are also overtly minimal and as a result, beautiful.
That’s probably because Coulter is an industrial designer by trade — he’s done stints at both Burton and Nike — and has carried a pocket knife since boyhood in coal country, Indiana. His first knife came to him as a hand-me-down from his father, who received it from the mine he worked at as gratitude for his service there. Coulter’s mom carried a pocket knife at all times too, (a Swiss Army).
It’s plain that Coulter, who lives in Portland, Oregon amongst the biggest knife brands in the world, takes special consideration when it comes to pocket knives. His views on knives as tools and everyday carry items border on philosophical and manifest in the products that the James Brand creates. Below, Coulter explains why the pocket knife needed a re-design, how the James Brand builds a new product and why he wants to “own the pocket.”
Q: What was one of the first knives that made you think about knife design?
A: Burton used to own a shoe company called Gravis, and Gravis did a little promotional knife that was small — a little single blade folding knife with a serrated blade and I carried the thing literally every day for about ten years. It ended up with this beautiful patina, and I used it all the time for all these basic things, but it came from Gravis and I wasn’t necessarily this huge Gravis fan per se — and it was co-branded with Smith and Wesson and I definitely wasn’t the Smith and Wesson person. So 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.
Q: Was there something specific about pocket knives that you recognized needed to be improved or a problem that needed to be fixed?
A: There was this knife that I used to carry a lot when I was in China from this company called Protech, I think it was called the Godfather Mini. It was a full-auto, full switchblade and it was extremely tactical — symmetrical, pointy, stabby blade. But it had this really great action and the design of it was kind of beautiful. But it was definitely too tactical.
From a design positioning standpoint, most of the knife world would just start to break into two chunks. There was the hunt/fish world that generally involves things that were really over-built, over-designed, overly-ergonomic with camo handles and gut hooks and blood grooves, and then there was stuff that was kind of like my Protech example that was really tactical and really felt like it was a weapon and not a tool. The way I always grew up with these knives in my life was that they weren’t weapons — I mean, that was maybe a last resort — but they were super handy as everyday tools to do things from slice an apple, to dig a root out of the garden, to open the mail to clean out your fingernails; they’re just a thing that you have handy all the time. They were always everyday carry to me and I just didn’t feel like anything was really doing that for me — either from a brand positioning standpoint or from the design of the product.
Our philosophy has always been to make less stuff and make that stuff better.
Q: With a smaller and a more refined collection of knives, what goes into the process of designing a new product? Do you feel an urge to keep making new items?
A: Our philosophy has always been to make less stuff and make that stuff better. I think one of the things that was really and is still confusing to us is, if you thumb through the catalog for one of the big knife competitors, they are often hundreds of hundreds of pages deep. It’s really hard to figure out what would be the right product for me or anybody based on that.
The knife industry has been very focused on SKUs. We really wanted to do something different from that, partially just to solve this question of, “What’s the right knife for me? Here’s what I do, here’s where I’ll be, what’s the right thing for me?” We’re totally focused on everyday carry, so that narrows things down quite a bit, but we wanted to make it easier for people to figure out what the right thing for them would be.
For us, if you dove into the future 20 years, I would love for that Chapter silhouette to still exist and have the same value as the Case Trapper or the Chris Reeve Sebenza, any of the things that are really iconic.
Q: Your newest knife, the Elko, is your smallest knife. How did the design process for that one start and how did you end up with the final product?
A: We’re all extremely proud of that one. In some ways, it’s maybe the best example of modern minimal everyday carry that we’ve ever pulled off. We really believe in this idea that the best knife for you is the one that you actually have with you. So the idea of having a knife that could go with your keys, that you can basically never forget, is a really important idea for us.
We’d always wanted to do that, and it had been on our radar, but we wanted to look and see what the problems are with the other things that are like that in the market. One of the things that we found is that with a lot of the competitive knives, like the Swiss Army Classic, the blade is so small that it’s barely functional. So when we talk to people about that it’s like, you can actually make a fully functional knife if you give it a real blade instead of that eighth-of-an-inch-wide penknife blade.
It just kind of disappears in your pocket.
We’re not gonna put a corkscrew on it and we’re not gonna add a bunch of blades to it, but just having that little tool on the end that lets you turn screws on your snowboard or scrape off a sticker or pry open a bottle of beer — that one little thing adds so much value to that tool because all of a sudden you don’t have to worry about prying with your blade tip or damaging the edge finish when you open a beer. The combination of this bigger blade and that one sort of multifunctional tool on the end makes it really useful for a bunch of situations. But it’s super minimal, it just kind of disappears in your pocket.
We don’t want to be just a knife brand, we want to really solve for this idea of everyday carry and owning what’s in your pocket.
Q: The idea of everyday carry is obviously important to you, so which one of your knives is most often in your pocket?
A: I don’t go anywhere without an Elko, ever. And not because I’m thinking about it, but because I’m still using one of our original samples — I put it on my keys and I’ve just never taken it off.
And then I generally carry 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.