24 May 2024

Forging through tough times

From Country Life, 7:28 pm on 24 May 2024
Jamie Hughes

Jamie Hughes Photo: RNZ/Sally Round

Blacksmith Jamie Hughes has a niche business crafting knives and hand-forged metalwork for chefs, farmers and tourists from his old-fashioned smithy in Norsewood.

But tough economic times means he's feeling it from all angles, like many small businesses in rural New Zealand. 

Hughes has been running the forge for three years now, showing off traditional blacksmithing skills in one of the heritage buildings lining the main street.

Bespoke knives are a specialty of the The Norseman Blacksmith, as well as more decorative metalwork hammered into shape in a corner of the workshop, which has a distinctly Norwegian flavour, echoing the town's roots.

Hughes is proud of his Norwegian heritage and has discovered only recently he is a direct descendant of one of the immigrants on the first ship carrying Norwegians to New Zealand, the Hovding.

"I do feel at home here in Norsewood."

He chairs a group promoting the town and helps run the Viking Festival which takes place here in February.

He is self-taught and has spent the past three years growing his 16-year old hobby into a business.

He has customers in Norway and other parts of the world, as well as local farmers and chefs and Scandinavian tourists intrigued by the town's Norwegian links.

"They see something Norse and they've got to have a look."

Hughes was able to employ another blacksmith Jar Menzies-Winson who in turn has been helping to train a young student in the craft.

"We're a bit of a dying breed but it's coming back fortunately," Menzies-Winson said. 

"A lot of people are staying away from mass production items and wanting some quality and handcrafted stuff."

Jar Menzies-Winson at work

Jar Menzies-Winson at work Photo: RNZ/Sally Round

But now Hughes is having to rethink how he does things as the recession bites, costs rise and people hold back on luxury items like bespoke knives.

"I sell knives to chefs which is a hospitality trade which is in a downturn currently, I sell knives to dairy farmers and sheep farmers and they're struggling at the moment, so they're not spending, as well as the tourism market. 

"I'm feeling it from all angles at the moment." 

Hughes has decided to downscale, "get back to our roots", keep up his online store and keep open on Sundays, then readdress things in the summer.

"I survived Covid, I survived everything thrown at me until the interest rates hikes. That's what's killed me, the cost of living so high now."

But a bit like his ancestors struggling to carve out a living when they first came to the area, he is not giving up.

"You see it throughout life, there's ups and downs ... and this is just another down."

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