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Call Sign: Pegasus

A short documentary on Chris Goldmann, Nelson Mandela's chopper pilot turned knife-maker, by Brian Fortune

by David Graver in Culture on 14 January 2014

In an impassioned and informative short documentary by director Brian Fortune, viewers are given a glimpse into one man's extraordinary life. Chris Goldmann, the film's subject, is the founder of Pegasus Knives. With deft attention to detail, material and care, Goldmann crafts magnificent utensils. His story doesn't begin there, however. It begins first in rural South Africa, then moves forth into his tenure as a chopper pilot and includes his time serving as Nelson Mandela's personal helicopter pilot. The filmmaker and the film's subject met through family friends, but as Goldmann notes: "While Brian was filming me at work I clearly remember chatting to him about [how] here there were two people both fully absorbed in their passions—him filming and me making knives."

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The film's message is reflected in our recent conversation with Fortune: "You can tap into any aspect of Goldmann's life and he has lived with the same enthusiasm." The director flew to Portugal alone and shot with Goldmann for about a week in all, during which the craftsman worked at night, and the two would chat over whiskey while going through mementos and photo albums. There, covering his military career and his hobby turned new profession, Fortune learned that, "This isn't a modern story. He's like a man from a storybook, from a time gone by, from a different world." Fortune was taken with Goldmann's ability to share his tale—an international story driven by a man of thought and action.

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Goldmann's road to becoming a knife-maker took many turns and involved a move from South Africa to Portugal. "I left the Air Force and I had two choices—join the family business or try to get into airlines. I got my interview with the airlines, but my brother and my father who were living in Portugal, called and said they needed me." He made the move. There, he married a doctor who was often on call and dedicated nights and weekends to work. Goldmann thought, "I can go to the pub and drink it up with the guys or I can get creative at home." Having traversed the bush as a boy, Goldmann was familiar with knives and took to knife-making as a hobby. "I didn't really turn it into a business," he explains. "Although it is a little business, you can only make so many knives and have so many knives in your possession, before someone says, 'Will you sell that to me?'" To supplement the costs of his hobby (with steel being expensive) he began to sell his wares. Ever since, the business has continued to grow.

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Goldmann draws upon the familiar wood types of his youth. Much of his materials are indigenous African Hardwoods like Ebony and African Blackwood. "I knew these trees as a kid," he notes. "When walking in the bush I could show them to you. I could tell you all the information about them." He also utilized tambuti, which is so tough that it's only chewed by the black rhino. Some of the handles incorporate giraffe bone, ethically sourced from the majestic animals that have died in the wild. The material appeals to Goldmann for its sheer strength, which he has observed himself: "Giraffe bone is so hard that not even a hyena could eat it. You can see the gnaw marks. The hyena has one of the strongest jaws in nature, that's how dense a giraffe bone is." There is a story to each of his materials, which reflects the fact that these are not just knives—they're the works of a true storyteller. "I love the materials from Africa, and the horns and warthog tusks. These are things that take you back to Africa. It runs in my blood. It's where I am from."

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Living in Portugal has also brought Goldmann inspiration. He plans on experimenting with cork, and refers to his new nation as the home of this resource. With cork, he envisions fishing knives. He's also keen on tackling the wood of olive trees, which he describes as magnificent, with the same toughness and grain structure he seeks in all of his materials.

On the metal side, Goldmann sticks to one company, Sweden's Damasteel. The fine steel is easy to work with while delivering everything he needs. It's not too brittle and can heat and treat with ease. Goldmann also explains that it "holds a nice edge and polishes up well."

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As with any artist, Goldmann feels a kinship to the products he makes. "I don't really think anyone will ever own one of my knives—they're renting it on a lifelong basis. I haven't made a knife yet that I do not want. It's a labor of love and a passion. You spend 20 to 40 hours on a blade. By the time you finish, it's a part of you." This reflects Goldmann's passion, much the way the film does. There's concern, heart and adventure; a powerful story that's compounded by two storytellers who have united.

Pegasus Knives are available online for between €100 and €700.

Images courtesy of Brian Fortune

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