From the third to the 17th century, the weapons industry in Damascus, Syria, was renowned for making the greatest blades in the world.
Using steel ingots from India and Sri Lanka, Arab swordsmiths fashioned swords with a distinctive swirling pattern (damask cloth has a similar design and was also named after Damascus, so the two Syrian products may share a common entymology). The patterns in this crucible steel are made by its intermixed ferrite and cementite alloys.
Though highly coveted and prized for their ability to hold an edge, the blades’ production inexplicably ceased around 1750. One theory is that the rise of the British Raj in India interrupted steel production and export, while it’s also possible that changing methods of warfare decreased demand to the point where the embodied knowledge was simply forgotten and lost.
In the 20th century, the research and attempts at re-creating Damascus steel has become recognized as a subfield of archaeology. The technique of pattern welding by which slices of steel are layered together has become known as Damascus steel since it was introduced at an American knife show by an artisan blacksmith in 1973. However, the original formula and technique remains a mystery.
The modern carbon steel blades that carry the Damascus name can be stronger and hold a sharper edge than the ancient steel. As a result, Damascus knives are highly prized among professional and home chefs. The leading commercial manufacturers are Japanese, such as Yoshihiro, a company that produces a 16-layer 8-inch chef’s knife for approximately $130. However, serious aficionados of Damascus knives seek out blade makers who can custom-fashion a Damascus chef’s knife with the ideal balance and grip for the individual user.