Would second the idea of having HHH in your list of contenders; have a very nice Damascus which so far has been a great cutter. Can't really say who is better than who in this list of stars
I think I'd be a little disappointed if my first major knife purchase was a really expensive custom made masterpiece. It took me a while to get competent (I still wouldn't say im all that great) at sharpening with stones, for one. Wouldn't want to scratch the hell out of my shiny new *insert awesome knife here.*
Why not check out the Misono Swedish Carbon line and get yourself a 240mm gyuto. It'll be much better than what you're probably using now, will let you get used to caring for a carbon knife, will give you a reference point for what you do/don't like in terms of flat/belly profile and overall weight/balance, and it even has a pretty sweet dragon engraved on the side of it (if you get a 240mm or larger, I think).
This is just a suggestion, and there's are tons of other great choices out there in the $200-350 range that will give you excellent performance and, more importantly, a good reference point. Not to mention, you might be happier with some solid performers in a few different styles than just one uber knife to do it all. How often do you use a paring/bread/slicing/boning knife? Often enough to warrant buying a nice one? Don't forget to budget for your sharpening kit, too.
All that being said, if this is what you two really want to get yourselves, I totally understand that and you've found the right place to get something truly awesome made. Welcome to the forums.
These are good points- there are many aspects to a custom knife that you will not be aware of until you have more experience with what is available.
"The Buddha resides as comfortably in the circuits of a digital computer or the gears of a cycle transmission as he does at the top of a mountain."
Thanks for everyone's concern on jumping to a high end knife. The reason I didn't want to jump to an intermediate knife was that I feel like I could spend a little more and get better. When I purchase things, I have a budget already set aside and I'll use all of it to get the best possible within that budget. It's just my way of thought on buying the best in my price range.
Also, I figure I can use my current knives to play with sharpening and if I do need a pro, there's a bunch on this forum who I can send out to sharpen.
I'm not afraid of carbon steel and taking care of it. I grew up around carbon steel or cast iron everything. I even have an older cleaver that requires some tlc.
If damascus is just for looks, I wouldn't mind a carbon steel knife. I've seen how they form a beautiful patina.
I think my top 3 gyuto makers so far is:
Mario (does he have a website?)
I have a lot of emails to make. LOL it takes more work than one would think to find a great knife!
Have you seen any of Bill Burke's work? Beautiful knives and he too is on the forum...not sure of the costs, but he has a subforum as well...
one man gathers what another man spills...
You say that handles are important to you, my two favorites as far as what I have seen are devin's and marko's. Devin for his western types and marko's for his wa type handles. As far as steel I have never used one but from what I hear devin is a master... Not to put others down or say they aren't great but it seems that devin puts the time in and understands the nuances of heat treating, which makes the steel. I would side with others with the buy a good knife first to practice with before getting a masterpiece. Depending on who you go with it might take 6 months or a year before you get the masterpiece anyway. Don't think of it as lesser quality, a good 200-300 dollar knife really should be top notch you may add a few percentage points (less then five) to fit and finish/edge retention/overall quality with a $1000+ knife but not as much as you probably expect. Most of what you are paying for is aesthetics which are nice but easily marred by in experience. Another note is that before going to a high end custom it makes sense to know what you want. You said you dont know how much belly you want on a knife, what kind of grind, length. Before making a large purchase on a full custom it makes sense to figure out what you like by experimenting with other good knives at a lower price point. If your near other members you might try to set up a meet where you can toy around with some of there knives and see what suits you. There are plenty of guys here with those $1000+ knives and the $200-300 ones and I'm willing to bet they reach for the less expensive ones as often if not more so then the masterpieces. Obviously it's a big expenditure take some time, hang around here and you will learn slot that should help you in your decision.