The Secret of the Damast steel

A Special Kind of Blade

Persia, 1884

This is a special one. He can feel it. Even before he pulls the shamshir, the Persian sabre, out of its sheath. He can feel its presence, even before he runs a finger across the blade. It seems as if the strength radiating from the blade is rippling its surface, in support of the one who carries it. He softly touches the steel. It is smooth and cool, despite the midday heat, which has made its way into the drafty halls of the bazaar of Mashhad, crowded with moving bodies and filled with the chatter of negotiations.

He takes a closer look. He was right: There is a subtle, wave-like pattern in the steel, fine dark lines that hint at a prestigious heritage. “True Damas steel,” says the merchant, as if reading his mind. He proudly points to an engraving at the shaft. Henri Moser recognizes the golden Persian letters and nods knowingly. He has already collected a few knives with the signature of the famous swordsmith Assad Ullah of Isfahan. Ullah’s workshop created famous oriental warrior gear to decorate and defend a man’s position with its outstanding beauty, sharpness and strength.

Like Rippled Water

The word "damas", which means “water” in Arabic, is a possible origin of the name of this special steel with the rippled water pattern. Made from Indian wootz, a high-quality steel, it was traded as far as the major weapon hub of Damascus in Syria. With the important role of Damascus in the trade with the West, the name evolved into Damascus, Damascene and Damast Steel. While the recipe and exact blade-making process of the steel from India and Persia were highly guarded secrets that were lost, even before Henri’s visit to the bazaar in Mashhad, myths and legends surrounding the steel grew as it became popular among Westerners.

High Performance

To demonstrate its extraordinary edge, the merchant tosses a silk scarf into the air and swipes the sabre at it. Two pieces of silk fall to the floor. Even though he has seen it a few times, Henri is always impressed by this performance. The merchant sees Henri’s expression and breaks into a crooked smile of certainty. This stranger will become the new owner of the Damast sabre.

THE START OF A COLLECTION

Henri starts looking at a few other things to improve his bargaining position. He enjoys the process and knows the sabres and the market. Prices usually start out high. Despite his oriental clothes, the Swiss traveler and entrepreneur Henri Moser of Charlottenfels from Schaffhausen stands out in a Persian crowd. With the sabre tightly clutched at his chest, aware of on-lookers and whispers about him, he finally leaves the merchant's stall. He is resolute. His fascination with the culture and its artifacts guide him on this second expedition through Asia.

A Popular Travel Writer and Collector

The famous Damascene steel will become one of his passions, leading to the collection of more than 1,300 artfully crafted oriental weapons. Jotting down his experiences in Central Asia, the adventurer will evolve into one of the pioneers of popular travel writing. Back in Europe, people will gather to hear more about his adventures and see the artful craft of the Damascene knives and the rich collection Henri Moser has acquired on his travels. Henri will keep going back to Asia, growing more curious about whether he can uncover the secret on how the Damascene steel is made.

SABRES FOR SCIENCE

Among his friends is a scientist who shares Henri’s curiosity about the secret of the steel’s special composition. With a few generously donated, precious blades from the collection, he can make out a high carbon content and a special composition of trace elements within the steel.

A Surprising Discovery

But it won’t be until 2006 that scientists in Dresden make a breakthrough discovery with the samples of Henri’s sabres: The chemical mixture and treatment of the steel has created so-called carbon nanotubes. Running like fine but strong threads through the knife, they give the blade hardness and flexibility at the same time, and create a sort of self-sharpening function. Even though the original process of its creation has been long lost, the secret composition of the Damast steel is finally unveiled with the help of Henri’s treasures.

New Approaches to an Old Kind of Steel

Today, Henri Moser’s impressive collection is on view at the Bern Historic Museum in Switzerland. Meanwhile, many ways have been explored and found to create blades that carry the famous traits: Repeated heating and mechanical layering of different kinds of steel, and a mixture of various kinds of steel powders are popular methods to create today’s variations of Damast steel.

The Strongest Blade

“The blade is the strongest element of the knife,” says Erwin Müller. He would know. As overall production manager at the Victorinox knife factory in Ibach, Switzerland, Erwin is a true knife expert.

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