Ah yes, clones, perhaps the touchiest of subjects in the custom torch world (CTW). Be aware that my thoughts on the subject might deviate from some of the conventional, established canon on the matter.
Clones in the Torch World
The term itself needs no explanation to anyone who is familiar with the knife and watch hobby. But for those of you who might not be familiar with the term, recall that many custom torches have what most would consider a cost-prohibitive MSRP. Not everyone can afford one, and as a result, demand is picked up in the form of clones: Torches reminiscent (sometimes identical) in aesthetic to the original, yet at a fraction of the cost.
In general, I’m not a fan of clones. This is the accepted stance by most individuals in the hobby; those who would beg to differ often find their opinions squashed out by the, shall we say, more enlightened members of the community. To this effect, there is a diehard faction of the CTW that attempts to stamp out any and all mention of clones; this is an exceedingly short-sighted viewpoint.
The Benefits of Clones
Sometimes a maker will abscond as was the case with Mac’s Customs around 2015. Mac was best-known for his Tri-EDC flashlight that sparked the triple LED craze, and the demand for the setup was subsequently taken up by Okluma. The original Okluma DC1 (or TinyDC as it was referred to back then) was pretty much a 1:1 clone of the Tri-EDC in terms of dimension. Over the years, Okluma has added on numerous features to slowly distinguish itself from the Tri-EDC. The fact remains, however, that it is inherently a clone in many ways. Another good example concerns Surefire’s original E-series which was valued for its cross-compatibility. The original E-series has been out of production for well over a decade leaving many users without replacement parts for their aging torches. Lumens Factory filled the void by creating clones of the original components with some improvements to the quality.
In both these examples, manufacturers have taken up the demand for what is effectively an abandoned platform. Yes, they’ve improved upon the original design, but the fact remains that they are effectively cloning. What’s more, this cloning comes at the expense of no one – is that so wrong? Okluma enjoys a lauded (and deserved) reputation in the CTW. Yet, in an instance I’ll elucidate upon further, you’ll see Lumens Factory, which happens to be based out of China, bashed by some individuals who are biased against the country of origin.
Furthermore, as I touched upon earlier, not everyone can afford a $500 custom torch. In lieu of this, clones offer a compelling alternative and can serve to bring someone into the “fold”. Think about it. If a clone is inferior in quality, and most are, a purchaser is more likely to express their dissatisfaction (to the credit of the original) and purchase the real thing. Now if a clone is comparable in quality to the real thing, well, that’s where you have a problem. People will flock to the clone thus undercutting sales of the original. Is this right? Maybe not, but it incentivizes the original maker to step up their design and improve. And like so, clones promote a free market and push the industry to innovate.
A Misconstrued Definition
And oh, we’ve finally hit that magic word: Innovation. Something that the CTW is severely lacking in as I’ve outlined in one of my other posts. Custom torches are mostly predicated on the intensive, near-perfect machining that goes into the host, or body, of the flashlight. Because much of this is done on CNC machines – not manually, although there are some exceptions – it has become increasingly easier to pump out more and more custom torches. Likewise, the competition – clones – have gotten better too. Sure, you can make fun of some of the ones we’ve seen like the horrendous Barrel Flashlight clone. But some have hit levels on par with the better manufacturers, take for example the Titanium Surefire E1E clone.
Where am I going with this? If you can’t innovate to beat the competition, then you resort to more demeaning measures like some of the CTW has. The CTW is predominantly US-based, and there is a slight, (generally) unspoken bias against torches manufactured in countries of other origin. A good case in point is Muyshondt’s torches. There is a very long thread in the Flashlight Fanatic’s FB group that alludes to where they are manufactured (China), and a subsequent flurry of nationalism in the comments. Of course, there’s a bunch of other reasons why they were shit on, like their customer service and marketing, but the fact remains that their torches are generally of high-quality regardless of the origin manufacturer (presumably Lumintop which makes budget flashlights). Furthermore, it’s ironic that Reylight, from China, is similarly pushing the envelope in terms of design and quality. No, his torches are still not on par in terms of quality with many true custom torches. But they’re getting closer, and they’re also much more accessible for the average enthusiast who wants a taste of custom.
As the race for innovation has heated up, some of the canon custom torch makers have doubled down and effectively tried to lock out newcomers. This doesn’t present itself much in the form of the makers themselves, but more so through their respective followings: The word “clone” has been heavily equivocated by many members of the community to generic design elements. Because much of a custom torch’s value is based on the host, a unique bodily pattern is essential in today’s market. Unfortunately, there’s only so many patterns out there, and well, they all start looking the same after a while. And as a result, new makers have been shut down, or called out, for what is effectively the most menial of elements. This same sentiment is equally applicable to the bodily ergonomics of many hosts, torches are being called out for “copying” the venerable hourglass design.
I won’t get into the specifics of where I’ve seen instances of the above with custom torches; however, I will draw a parallel to Steel Flame’s products. I don’t give a hoot about their products which is why I’ll use them as an example. There are many who find them appealing, though, and I can respect that. That in mind, my issue lies not with Steel Flame’s products themselves, but rather how they are thrown up on a pedestal by the CTW. Steel Flame products are most recognizable by their skulls. And naturally, because they are already pricy at MSRP, and significantly more expensive on the secondary market, some makers have tried to emulate them with cheaper, similar clips that also use skulls. Such clips have been shot down by the CTW and not on the basis of quality, but rather the addition of a skull itself. Like, really? Since when was a skull trademarked or patented? How about since never.
Yes, yes, I understand that Steel Flame has sentimental value to many – HGR and all that. Maybe it’s not honorable or respectful for other makers to use a skull, but what defines those values? Is it honorable to game supply and demand like Steel Flame has effectively done, thus jacking up secondary prices? But I digress. This, and the examples that I’ve outlined with the CTW, is clout-chasing at its finest. People are eager to monopolize, justify their claim to high-end gear, and will preclude anything that would usurp this monopoly. Seeing something undercut and rival what you own for a fraction of the cost is unnerving.
For the Record
To reiterate, clones are a necessary component of any free market and they serve to push the industry to innovate. I’m certainly not a fan of clones; however, the CTW has slowly misconstrued the meaning of the word over time to the point where it looks absurd to most newcomers in the hobby. The diehard faction that despises clones will probably find it hard to accept this, and I’d expect no less. After all, the bonds between maker and buyer run deep in the CTW. But they would also be cognizant to recognize that clones have their place, to argue otherwise is bigotry.
Much of this post reads like an unpopular opinion, and that’s because it is. I don’t expect people to change their mindset about clones overnight because of how engrained the mentality is in the CTW. To keep it real, though, clones aren’t going to ever disappear. As long as there exists value in them, they will continue to flood the market. And to those who might posit that clones inherently have no value, their mere existence begs to differ. Now some parting words: Everyone is certainly entitled to their own opinion, but don’t let the masses dictate your views.