Serial Numbers and Limited Editions

By Prof. Roland Phlip


Serial numbers and limited editons... These are a few of the collector's favorite things. But, what do they mean?

Knives are typically serial numbered for one of four reasons:

  1. because they are part of some limited edition
  2. because they come from a custom maker or manufacturer who numbers his works
  3. in an attempt to make them more collectible
  4. because the original customer (often military) requires it

Let's start by looking at "factory" knives.

A production knife typically begins with a concept in a paper or electronic sketch. Designers typically produce hundreds of these, maybe a dozen or more per day, as they search for and try to develop good designs. After several hundred sketches, they may hit on a few that seem worth pursuing. Those few then get first-cut detailed design drawings made of them and maybe even concept prototypes made from those drawings.

A concept prototype is the first major step a design takes toward becoming a production product. Concept prototypes are made from the sketches and first-cut drawings by skilled machinists. Parts are often machined out of solid stock (a slow, expensive process). Sometimes, they're not made of metal at all but of other materials that are easier to work. Today, other processes such as stereo lithography may be used to make some parts. As a result, concept prototypes are very much hand-made one-of-a-kind pieces.

Concept prototypes are strictly guarded. Most companies have strict policies
against showing these outside of the company. Occasionally, some of these are
confidentially shown to experts, authorities, and key customers outside the company to get an independent reaction and get outside input.

If a competitor sees a concept prototype, they may steal the ideas and bring them to market before the actually originator can. This is especially true when the new ideas are an evolution of an existing product. Another company not burdened with bringing the existing product to market, not saddled with the expenses of the previous model, another company starting from scratch, could bring the improved design to market ahead of the originator.

If a design is not pursued, most companies destroy the concept prototypes or at least lock them up very tightly. Why? Because they don't want someone else to take one of their discarded ideas and run with it.

This makes a concept prototype a very valuable collectible if you can find one. Here at The Institute for Advanced Balisong Studies, our vast collection includes several such pieces. You would be surprised at which famous knife companies toyed with making balisongs.

Concept prototypes are usually specially marked and/or serial numbered for identification.

Out of a stack of concept prototypes, a few designs are selected to head toward
production. After many intermediate prototypes which are also almost always destroyed, a finalized design arrives. A handful of exact prototypes are made. In the case of the recent BM42, for example, 25 first prototypes were made. These prototypes are made to be as close to the actual product as possible.

Many first prototypes are destined for destruction in exhaustive testing. Others are used by sales and marketing to promote the upcoming product. One of the BM42 protos was shown at the Shot show in Los Vegas. Another made an appearance at the recent Oregon show. Since there are very few of them and since many of them will be destroyed along the way, these early prototypes are also highly collectible.

Very often, these first prototypes are specially marked and serial numbered if only so that factory personnel can keep track of them. The majority of first prototypes don't get to far outside the factory.

The next step at most factories is a preliminary production run. These knives are made on the assembly line by assembly line workers using the exact same materials, tools, methods, etc. which production will use. The number here is kept fairly small, 200 in the case of 42. Each of these is carefully inspected to be sure that everything is going as expected. Some of these are used for sales and promotion. Some are destructively tested. Some end up in the private collections of factory personnel. But many actually get sold to the public. These knives are also typically specially marked and serial numbered to keep track of them.

Finally, many factories including Benchmade specially marking and numbering the first formal production run of each new knife. Most of these first production knives are sold to the public, so special marking and numbering is really done more as a collectible/commemorative sort of thing than anything else. Here is an interesting group fo four Benchmade Model 42 Bali-Songs from the archives here at The Institute for Advanced Balisong Studies illustrating the progression from concept Prototype to First Prototype to Pre-Production and, finally, to First Production.

Click on the image for a larger, more detailed view

Periodically, many factories issue "special editions" or "limited editions" of production knives. These are often specially marked, serial numbered, and specially packaged. Sometimes, these are done to commemorate special events such as a company anniversary. Sometimes they're done to commemorate some other event (while I'm unaware of any such balisongs, several companies did special editions of other knives to mark the new millennium). Sometimes, they're done for outside interests (the Oregon Knife Collector's club does such an edition every year.) And, other times, they're just done to try and push up sagging sales.

In many cases, these "special editions" are just production knives that have not been selling to well. So, the factory takes 'em out of their boxes, marks and serial-numbers them, repackages them, and tries to sell them as special collectibles.

So, how do serial numbers affect the value of a production knife? It depends on why the knife is numbered. Obviously, prototypes are often quite valuable. Pre-production and first-production knives are usually a bit more collectible than general production knives will be simply because they've got more history.

Special editions depend in large part on the nature and size of the editions. "Special Editions" which are just production knives that have been specially marked have not generally done well. "Commemorative" which are just specially marked production knives have also fared poorly. On the other hand, when manufacturers have done something truly special, they've generally become quite valuable.

The value of "limited editions" also depends on the size of the edition. The fewer the better. The best editions have been well under a hundred pieces.

Many custom makers habitually serial number all of their products. Some simply number each knife sequentially as it is completed. Others follow different schemes. Sometimes, special serial numbers are applied at customer request. A certain Mr. James Bond, for example, might request serial number 007. Sets are sometimes numbered sequentially, are sometimes all given the same number, or sometimes have a letter added after the number. Numbering each knife in a set differently makes it easier to separate the set later as each piece is an individual and can stand alone. Numbering them all the same makes that virtually impossible as the set is now considered one work intended to be kept together.

There's really no rules about how custom makers number their products. How the number affects the value of a given knife depends on the numbering practices that maker followed.