February 24, 2007 in Business

Forging a new market

Associated Press The Spokesman-Review
Associated Press photo

Joe Waite grinds an edge on a sword Thursday in New Glarus, Wis., at Albion Swords.
(Full-size photo)

NEW GLARUS, Wis. — The scent of burning metal and whine of a grinder drift through the cool, cavernous warehouse as 15 workers forge swords coveted by collectors who long for a piece of medieval history.

“When you hold it in your hand, it’s an amazing feeling, a feeling of power,” said Gabriel Ghazarian, 59. “The sword has always been a symbol of honor, of courage and virtue. Even though it’s obsolete, that symbol remains.”

Albion Swords is the largest producer of authentic swords in the U.S., making about 1,000 per year for annual sales of $1 million. It recreates blades and hilts with painstaking accuracy, so history buffs can own swords with the same weight, dimensions and intricacy as those wielded by 8th-century Vikings or 16th-century Swedish knights.

The company also has lured designer Jody Samson, 60, an industry legend known for creating the iconic sword that Arnold Schwarzenegger wielded in “Conan the Barbarian.”

While other companies sell swords for around $100, an authentic Albion piece can cost more than $3,000.

Customers like Ghazarian, a retired electrical engineer from Lakeworth, Fla., are happy to pay a premium.

“It’s not just a sword. It’s a piece of art,” said Ghazarian, whose collection cost between $25,000 and $30,000. Half of his 40 swords came from Albion.

“It’s kind of like a link between the present time and history when people used to fight with these things,” he said. “It’s a very complex feeling. When I hold one, I feel I am a part of history.”

Howard Waddell, 51, owner of Albion Swords, said the weapons have been his passion since childhood. A self-described nerd, he used to bury cheap swords so he could “discover” them later, pulling them triumphantly from the ground like a modern-day King Arthur.

He began selling swords online, then decided there was enough of a market for authentic blades to sustain a smithy. He and wife Amy launched Albion — the name for England during the Roman period — in 1999 in Maryland. They transferred operations to her home state in 2001.

Waddell sells mostly to other men as fanatical as he is. He doesn’t advertise. Customers typically discover Albion’s Web site or hear about the company in an Internet chat room.

“Our customers are high-end collectors — doctors, lawyers, military personnel, law enforcement officers,” he said.

The swords can be shipped worldwide without restrictions because they are considered artwork, not weapons.

Pasquale Scopelliti, 46, a consultant from Darnestown, Maryland, swung his most recent purchase — an imposing $2,900 Svante medieval sword from Albion — for only a few moments before being overcome with emotion.

“It sings and whistles in the air like no sword I’ve ever swung,” he wrote in an impassioned e-mail to Albion that day. “If you hold it high, it shouts. If you hold it low, it whispers. If you strike in mid-plane it dismembers, drinking the blood of your invisible enemy and asking for another foe to slay.”

Scopelliti, who owns 25 swords, said he practices thrusts, guards and strikes in his back yard for up to an hour a day.

“My wife understands,” he said. “She sees it draws something out of me that she’s happy to see.”

Samson, who started making knives in 1969, moved from California to join Albion, where he heads a team that makes fanciful swords — those with no historical accuracy but an artistry all their own. The company gets a spike in sales every time “Conan” appears on television, Waddell said.

The designer said he works seven days a week for up to 11 hours a day.

“I get to do what I love,” he said, standing in a cramped tool room surrounded by the faint smell of cigarettes and burning metal. “This is my life.”

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