Entering Citadel’s workshop a short drive from Phnom Penh International Airport, visitors brought up on children’s tales of brave knights and furious dragons might think they’ve stepped into a modern-day Aladdin’s cave.
On dozens of workbenches and amid sparks and the flames of a metal forge, around 60 Cambodian tradesmen are busy producing weapons from a bygone age.
With their bare hands and an array of carpenter’s and metalsmith’s tools, the workers are busy producing a variety of blades, from hunting knives to daggers and even precision kitchen knives for one of Phnom Penh’s top French cuisine restaurants.
But the workers are also producing the most renowned and lethal steel blades of all time: the almost mythical katana and smaller wakisashi swords of Japan’s fabled medieval samurai warriors.
And in a special air-conditioned room off the main workshop, other artisans using select Cambodian woods are refining the ancient methods of bowmaking to produce the re-curved Turkish-Mongol bows once used so terrifyingly by Genghis Khan’s triumphant hordes, as well as the English-style long bows of the Middle Ages.
Citadel’s buzzing workshop in Cambodia is where the celluloid samurai of Japanese director Akira Kurosawa meet Robin Hood’s medieval merry men.
Citadel’s founding and Cambodia’s unique position as a producer of some of most elaborate swords in the world all began in the early 1990s, when French businessman Dominique Eluere, 55, and some friends decided to open a restaurant in Ho Chi Minh City.
“We asked blacksmiths to reproduce French table knives. Later, when I arrived in Cambodia in 1997, we continued with Cambodian blacksmiths and we thought it would be funny to venture into Japanese swords because, actually, we are doing something impossible,” Eluere said.
Eluere dug deep and invested roughly $500,000 in the project to make samurai swords of exquisite quality using Cambodian workers.
He also brought in French-trained gunsmith and weapons expert Stephane Champagnac, who studied in the prestigious gunmaking school of Ecole d’ Armurerie in the French town of Saint-Etienne.
Given that the Japanese methods of making katana are closely guarded secrets among swordmakers, it took Citadel around three years to master the complicated and time-consuming process.
“In the beginning we broke a lot of blades,” said 31-year-old Champagnac, who oversees the day-to-day running of Citadel’s operations.
Champagnac first became an expert in gunmaking in Saint-Etienne and later attended a fine cutlery-making course near Thiers, the official French capital of cutlery.
“The accurate recipe [to make a katana] is not written in books, and the Japanese don’t explain their secrets, so we had to pass from an empirical to a scientific approach,” Champagnac said.
Each katana blade is made according to a rigorous process that takes from a month and half to two months, depending on the quality.
The raw steel, which is imported from France, is placed in a charcoal forge and beaten and forged with three hammers in a process that can last weeks.
In one part of the process, the tempered steel is covered with a secret clay-based mix and quenched in palm oil. When the full process is complete—quenching plus tempering—the blade is then polished until a Hamon line showing the crystalline structure of the steel is visible.
The process ensures both hardness and flexibility in Citadel’s katanas, which bear a lifetime warranty.
Each sword begins in the factory’s metal forge and then continues on to final touches that include a wooden hilt, a stylized tsuba hand guard and a beautifully carved wooden sheath. Other touches include manta-ray skin, imported from Thailand, which covers the hilt, as well as Japanese silk, which is bound around the skin.
“Each katana is a work of art,” Eluere said.
“We are regarded by many as the only serious alternative to Japanese-made swords…. We are not ashamed of the quality of our product. They are made respecting the real Japanese spirit, with humility. Besides, the Japanese acknowledge our existence, which is an honor for us,” he said.
While Cambodian-made Citadel katanas compete in quality with Japanese-made swords, they are sold at a fraction of their cost.
“I always say to people that they have three options to get a good katana: the famous Japanese Ôliving treasures’ where you will have to wait for three years and pay $1,000 per centimeter of blade, or $70,000 for a long sword; a handful of European and US craftsmen where you’ll wait for one year and pay from $6,000 to $7,000; and Citadel where there’s no delay and you pay between $1,000 and $2,000,” Eluere added.
Eluere doesn’t even discuss cheap Asian and European copies of the katana, as his market is mainly reserved for connoisseurs such as collectors of Japanese swords and martial arts practitioners.
Citadel has also begun to experiment with a technique for producing composite steel blades that requires origami-like folds with each layer of steel.
The Damascus steel process they use is French but is quite close to the Japanese method, said Champagnac, adding that the method produces such high quality blades that France’s King Charlemagne banned the export of this type of sword for fear the fierce Vikings would get their hands on such weapons and then return and threaten France with them.
Although Citadel’s market for high-quality katanas is expanding, with sales mainly in Europe and the US but also South Africa, Russia, Ukraine, Taiwan and even Japan, the benefits are modest because the number of swords produced each month is still small, between 25 and 40 katanas. There are also local taxes, customs duties, VAT and the profit required by the importers, retailers and distributors, Eluere said.
Basically, the export price is about one-fourth of the final public price.
Citadel’s entire production line is sold overseas, though they do maintain a small showroom at No 10, Street 110, and if someone wants to buy a sword in Phnom Penh it will be delivered to their home country.
Alongside their swords, Citadel’s pride is its trained Cambodian staff, Champagnac said.
“They came from the rice fields, some from an orphans’ NGO, and they didn’t know anything in the beginning. They received six to seven months’ training and now they can produce excellent work. Each worker knows how to make a knife or sword from A to Z,” he said.
Citadel’s workers are relatively well paid too, with a basic monthly salary of around $150, which can be supplemented with bonuses.
“I remember people telling me in the beginning,” don’t say that the katanas are made by Cambodians, they won’t believe you,'” Eluere recounted of the initial response to his plan to establish Citadel.
“On the contrary, we claim unambiguously that our swords are proudly made in Cambodia by skilled Cambodian workers. That’s our pride, and theirs too, to see them making very high-quality products,” he added.
After conquering the katana, Champagnac also introduced bowmaking to his Cambodian staff at Citadel.
Using locally sourced woods and fiberglass, the staff has produced high-quality hunting bows based on the recurved Turkish-Mongolian model. A test shooting of a 60-pound bow at a target set up inside the Citadel factory showed the devastating power of accuracy of these bows and arrows, which should find a ready market in Europe and elsewhere.
“The Japanese called both sword and bow the honorable weapons,” Eluere said. “And it’s exactly in this spirit that we will continue our work; it’s our passion.”