All Things Spinning Interview – Derrick Obatake/ Steel Flame (Full Edition)
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Please tell us about yourself and when did you start your career and how did you start?
D: I started making jewelry back in my junior year of high school. I wasn’t very good academically but art and jewelry came naturally to me and I excelled in it. My high school teacher Mr. Lyons, supported me and was instrumental in my education and later, my career. In my last semester of high school I had 3 jewelry classes and was working an additional 2-3 hours after school every day. I also set up a workshop in my room at home with my own tools; a grinder for cutting stones, a torch for soldering and a polishing lathe. I didn’t realize until later, that I was actually doing business as a jeweler. I would make silver and turquoise jewelry, then sell the pieces so I could buy more materials. My mom would take me every week to a local rock shop so I could buy more raw turquoise to make more jewelry.
My father was a machinist by trade and he taught me everything he knew. I grew up with a lathe and a drill press in our garage. Even at a young age I was always fabricating stuff and taking things apart to customize them. To this day nothing is sacred. LOL! I was also really into knives and used to take my mom’s steak knives and try to re-shape them on the sidewalk. My buddy Mike and I were always building mini projectile devices with everything from toothpicks to hanger wire.
Henry Deguchi gave me my first real jewelry job when I got out of High School. His company was called Miye Pearl and Gem. Henry taught me the basics of making fine jewelry and gave me plenty of space to learn and grow. I also got my best friend (and partner in crime) Mike Eng, a job there as well. Our careers have been somewhat parallel in the jewelry industry ever since then. It is amazing and humbling that we are still working together here at Steel Flame.
After high school, I knew I wanted to be the best jeweler I could be. I took every type of jewelry related class I could find from schools like GIA and the Revere Academy. My thirst for knowledge has never stopped. I’m always exploring new processes and materials. It is never-ending and there is so much to learn and experiment with.
D: At the age of 23, I decided to go off on my own and set up a small shop above my friend’s auto shop in Montebello, California. No one knew where my shop was except for friends and relatives. My business was based on word of mouth, mainly making custom engagement rings and other jewelry. At the age of 25 a wholesale pearl company asked me to set up their manufacturing facility in Los Angeles. I designed a collection for them and set up a shop in downtown LA. It was my first time hiring and managing employees. One day I was really stressed and working hard to get things going while everyone else was just sitting around with nothing to do. I was trying to do everything myself. I realized then, that my job was not just to make jewelry, but to help empower my employees to learn and grow. I made the shift and it was amazing to see the results! This realization was better than learning how to make stuff. I was learning how to affect others in a positive way. I still have a lot to learn but this is the foundation of what I try to do today. Creation is not limited to simply making individual works of art, but it can also apply to nurturing others, to building a business, a positive brand, a heartfelt community, and more.
What is Steel Flame? What is HGR?
Most of my career was in making jewelry for couples, women and kids, but I always wanted to make something for guys. I was inspired by companies like Starlingear. I admired the work, but I was never one to wear jewelry, I am not a “cool dude”. I did not know if a nerd like me, could pull something like that off. My buddy Leonard kept telling me that I needed to “go to jail” first in order to get some “street cred”. LOL! That was just not going to happen. I figured I had to make something in my own style, so I just started slowly building pieces related to some of the things that I like to do.
A friend of mine introduced me to a friend of his, who was interested in silver jewelry. He told me that he was on a knife forum called the USN (https://www.usualsuspect.net). I thought, “Cool I am also into knives! Please show me the way.”
Steel Flame grew within the USN forum, it is filled with some amazing people. Honor and respect is commonplace there. They follow the principals of Bushido (武士道). I learned about Bushido from my pops and from watching a lot of Samurai movies when I was a kid. When you think about it, how cool is that? Bushido – the Warrior’s code.
I started sharing some of my work on the USN and got good feedback. During that time I was trying various things and making adjustments here and there.
It is so humbling when people choose to spend their hard-earned money with me. I am always so grateful for their support, and I have huge respect for them. I remember what it was like when no one was interested in my work. It was hard it to get things going, and no one even wanted to talk to me. That is why I started signing off with “Humble Gratitude and Respect.” After a while others started noticing the “Humble Gratitude and Respect” and started signing off with it too. I started making product with “Honor Gratitude and Respect” for our customers as something they could identify with.
In the early years I was obsessed with making everything perfect. Every line and angle had to be exact and symmetrical. I did not understand an important design factor until a good friend, Annie Kajiya, told me about “emotional value”. I did not get it at first. Her work is very whimsical and seemingly unstructured, far from what I was used to making. IMHO, “emotional value” comes in many different forms. It could be the confidence one gets when they dress up or rock a cool piece. It could be the comfort of the name of a loved one on tag, or it could be the meaning behind an icon that helps give someone the strength to endure a hardship. It is something more than just design, it is something that stirs the emotions within. With Steel Flame I try to design with these factors in mind. As a designer I could not ask for anything more. I am allowed to create things that I like, make people happy and hopefully give them a little something to help them through their life.
When we hear people talking about “Steel Flame”, it is always the questions like how to obtain the products and how can one join the group?
D: We are still trying to figure this part out ourselves! We are spoiled with a small community of great customers and many of them become our friends. It is nice having this close relationship. Honor, Gratitude and Respect are more than words within the community. Some may view us as elitist, but we are very protective of our community. We like to give folks a place where they can enjoy the company of others in a positive and nurturing way. We welcome others that understand what “Honor Gratitude and Respect” really means. However, (I regret) they would still need to find a sponsor to submit their request to be added into our secret group. There really is no set vetting process other than, we like to get to know who is added to the community. Another way would be to join the USN or other affiliated groups on FB to get to know us and/or our members. You can also see us at a few of the shows that we do throughout the year – TKI Tactical Knife Invitational, Blade Show in Atlanta, The USN Gathering.
The dilemma that I am currently facing, is that our demand is so much greater than what we can produce. I also have no desire to grow larger. However, it does not mean that I don’t want to get more products into the hands of our fans.
Our business has grown from a more personal relationship with our customers. If we expand our infrastructure IMHO, a number of things would happen – I would need to be a different person. Overhead costs would rise and I’d need to feed the machine, and I would have to prioritize money over other decisions. I fear we would lose the personal connection that we currently have with many of our customers. The value of our product (quality, uniqueness, finish, personal touch) would decline and things would become stale from excess, creativity would decline, my stress level would be through the roof and I would no longer enjoy coming to work every day. Others can make this shift and be successful, but I am not that person. I have plans to make minor adjustments to streamline our production without losing sight of our customers. We are in uncharted waters and there are no guarantees. But I always want to make sure I’m changing things for the right reasons.
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Now let’s have some fun after some serious questions! What is your favorite metal and why?
D: I like a lot of different metals for different reasons, but I think my favorites would have to be bronze, brass and stainless steel, mainly because with our Vintage Gunmetal™ finish, there is so much character that we can get into the metal.
What would be the most intense or memorable project you have done?
D: The most intense and memorable project, was building a custom knife. It is something I have always wanted to do, I just never had the time, knowledge nor means to do, so until recently. It could not have been possible without the help and inspiration of some great friends – Jeremy Marsh, Flavio Ikoma, Michael Burch, Jim Burke, Bob Terzuola, Ernest Emerson, and Rick Hinderer. It also took me a while to purchase some machinery and to build tooling. It is just the way I like to do things, I had to have the right equipment in place before I can even get started. I have only built a handful of knives but the latest was the 13 Warriors Hachiman. That knife embodies all the techniques and skills I had at that time, in order to build it. Building a knife is definitely a labor of love.
Then my following question is, would you make another knife like this one?
D: No, but I do have a new knife design that I am very excited about. Hopefully soon…
Were do you see Steel Flame in 5 years and 10 years? What do you envision and what would you like to achieve other than putting out more products.
D: We will keep creating product in different categories and focus on growing our existing community versus expanding into the main stream.
I have a lot of projects that I want to get to, but I just don’t have the time and resources to do all of them at once. The exciting part for me, is I love to create and I have no shortage of ideas or designs. For sure, some knives, maybe some watches and eventually a book to help designers and other artists with building their own business.
Something like a self-help book?
D: Yes something for right brain thinkers. After living through my experiences I realize that I may be able help others minimize the “hard knocks” that I have had to go through. The goal would be to help streamline their efforts to be successful.
What is the process that goes through your mind to bring your idea into reality? Is it a set process?
D: It is becoming a little easier as I gain more knowledge and experience. I am constantly learning and searching for more.
For example, in order to be a good chef one would need to know about many different spices, foods, and how they are prepared. Then through experience you would understand how the ingredients interact with each other and what quantities to use. Once you understand this, you could then create fearlessly.
IMHO, it is like a “data base” or “library” in your head. The more you have to work with, the more you can create. I am always asking myself “what if”. I am also immersed in my customers, and try to understand who they are and what they like. I am always searching for new processes and techniques, especially ones that are not within my field or scope. I know it sounds crazy but I analyze everything I see. I can’t help it, every line, every curve gets dissected. All that goes into my “database” and it’s hard not to think of creating something new! Obsession is also a good ingredient. LOL! Almost every waking moment I am thinking about product and design. I guess it is no wonder that I am very forgetful.
Let’s talk about your hobby(s)!
D: I was never good at sports growing up. Later in life I was obsessed with target shooting. I like the mechanical quality and design of firearms. It is also challenging to control the firearm and make the bullet go where you want it to when you know a violent blast is coming.
I also love playing paintball. I have been playing almost every weekend for about 35 years. It is such a great stress release and a good work out. I have also met so many great friends from playing.
My work is also my hobby. I truly am “living the dream” thanks to all of my fans and friends!
Humble Gratitude and Respect!