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by David Thomas July 30, 2022
Meet the English poster child for quality and endurance in an endangered heritage craft
Paul Jacobs had a nose for a great story and he found one in craft scissors. Not long after, he wrote himself into that story. His role? A leading one, as the guy who discovered he really needed a classic pair of kitchen scissors and chased them for three years before he got them.
And he is also devoted to ensuring the craft remains very much alive and his firm does not become a museum.
But several times Ernest Wright did almost become a museum, or a mere footnote in the steelmaking history of Sheffield. The story goes like this. Ernest Wright is today one of the two remaining craft scissor makers of England. A few things stand out about it:
One, it makes amazing, beautiful heritage craft scissors and its artisans make them the old-fashioned way, almost entirely by hand
Two, its corporate history is full of dramatic turns which include a run of near- and real-death experiences.
Jacobs and his partner Jan-Bart Fanoy of Rotterdam became aware of Ernest Wright in 2016 when the firm was lurching from another financial crisis. The family-owned company had already acquired a bit of a cult following from the viral spread of several videos documenting their devotion to an endangered heritage craft.
For Jacobs, a documentary video had already opened his eyes to the magic of craft, artisan, handmade scissors. Then the Kutrite Kickstarter buzz made him fall in love.
“I am into cooking. I see a video that asks why you spend money on quality knives then keep crap scissors in your drawer,” he recounts. “And the Kickstarter was kitchen scissors. I realized, hey, I am the target here. I am that guy. And I wanted those scissors.”
Let’s back up a bit here. The blade trades (cutlery, knives, scissors and, earlier, swords and weapons) tended to be located in the same towns for hundreds of years. Sheffield was England’s center and there were others in Europe and around the world. Those trades exploded in the late 1700s, as advances in steel manufacturing opened up new markets. Consolidation was intense as the boom later plateaued and then, in the 20th Century, suffered a steep decline from the 1980s onward. Most of the companies were taken over or failed.
Some of the company names Ernest Wright acquired were hundreds of years old, but the firm as we know it is 120 years old this year. Ernest, whose father Walter worked as an outworker in the cutlery trades, launched his firm in a small rented workshop in a Sheffield cutlery factory. With its ups and downs, Ernest Wright enjoyed a great run and grew to more than 80 workers, exporting to 45 countries.
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Fast forward back to the 21st Century. Ernest Wright was already recognized as a company with both feet planted squarely in tradition and facing some serious headwinds from the modern world’s penny-pinching consumers who no longer wanted to pay for high-quality, long-lasting artisanal tools. Mass-produced, disposable scissors were available for a tenth of the price at the local drugstore.
The firm hit the wall more than a few times. That drama is part of its charm; after all, we all love an underdog survivor story. And the Kutrite Kickstarter? It was actually a huge success. It brought back hope, raising about 250,000 pounds and triggering a flood of sales.
But by then Ernest Wright’s finances were already strained, some older workers were off ill and there were some flaws with the updated designs for the scissors themselves. Even with firm orders in hand, it couldn’t deliver.
By this time, Jacobs was learning a lot more about the amazing heritage of Ernest Wright and Sheffield more generally. He still wanted his pair of scissors, but at this point he was much more wrapped up in the people, the craft and the firm. He was hooked on craft scissors and figured the least he could do was help Ernest Wright close out on a high note by bridging a deal to help the firm meet its last orders.
“It started out as a plan to give the company a soft landing and help Nick Wright fulfill his dream with the Kickstarter,” he explains. “If you asked me six years ago if my plan was to refurbish a factory to continue the history of this company, I’d have replied, Um no. But now we are another layer to the story.”
Jacobs and Fanoy still hadn’t planned to become the proprietors, figuring they could do the windup, and then sell off the inventory of forged blanks and machinery to someone else. Instead, they ended up hiring back the staff and set a course for rebirth.
WATCH More on Ernest Wright
Covid-19 threw a curve ball into turnaround efforts, but eyes are firmly placed down the road with a sense of permanence infused in long-term planning. The company, which has made a lot of moves over its history, recently purchased its current leased home in a central neighbourhood of Sheffield that used to be full of industrial warehouses and factories.
“The area where we are located has always been known for the cutlery trade,” explains Jacobs. “It is in the center of town and that is a better place to work than tucked in an industrial park somewhere in the outskirts.”
The purchase will help it fend off the latest threat, which happens to be property developers who are busily converting the area into condos. Ciselier visited the Ernest Wright offices in May, 2022 for the first time. It’s a plain, squat two-story brick building with warm, wooden floors and lots of light from large windows. Even in some tired old factories we have visited, there is always a lot of natural light, which is essential for the craftspeople to eyeball for accuracy when they are hammering the blades to a precise angle along the full length of the scissors.
It will be interesting to see how the setup changes with the gorgeous old period machines, like the rumbler (which rotates and wiggles ceramic chips and additives like acid against the rough scissors to give them a nice polish) or the hollow blade grinders.
Reno plans include a better layout that separates different processes of scissor manufacturing, each requiring custom ventilation for optimal working conditions for its nine employees. Jacobs is installing historically accurate machinery that will keep the firm rooted in traditional practices. And there will be space for visitors to come and observe production, part of the firm’s wish to teach future generations about the craft.
While he loves the historical bridge that Ernest Wright offers to the past, Jacobs is not interested in becoming merely a remembrance of a lost art. As he explains it, the firm is committed to ensuring it does not become “a museum of a disappearing craft” but, rather, a vital enterprise “that produces the finest quality of scissors by hand for a discerning, worldwide audience”.
As the decades have taught us, don’t bet against Ernest Wright.
Postscript - When the story becomes a story within a play
Recently, Ernest Wright became a part of a local Sheffield drama that shared some story elements with the firm’s real life experience. For the production of Rock, Paper, Scissors (which opened in the summer of 2022) the director looked to Ernest Wright to be part of the story.
Not surprising, it deals with the fate of a building that used to be used as a scissor factory. The characters explore three ideas on what to do with it and the plans include building a new scissor factory and converting it to apartments. Sounds familiar.
In a calculated bit of chaos appropriate to Ernest Wright, three plot lines play out on three different stages in three different theatres with the same actors – at the same time. It involves a lot of running across the public square in real time from venue to venue for the actors. The audience stays put and needs to attend each theatre on consecutive nights to get the full experience.
Clearly a natural for anything to do with drama, Ernest Wright got involved by making its equipment part of the sets so the actors could do some live scissor sharpening.
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