If you go

What: Southeastern Wildlife Exposition

When: Friday-Sunday; 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Sunday

Where: Various locations around Charleston

Price: General admission tickets are $20 for Friday and Saturday, $10 for Sunday; three-day general admission tickets are $40; VIP tickets are $150-$2,500; general admission tickets do not include admission to special events or any Jack Hanna performance, those tickets are sold separately .

For more info: sewe.com

Sure, it's easy to dismiss the Southeastern Wildlife Exposition as a too-rich-for-mortals showpiece cocktail party. But to really understand the annual winter blowout, all you have to do is look at the mammoth ivory in a knife in the palm of Russ Sutton's hand.

Oh, yes, it's really from the preserved tusks of a woolly mammoth that went extinct some 4,000 years ago. Russia exports tons of the stuff each year and the ivory is prized, despite conservationist concerns that its use eggs on the slaughter of elephants for their tusks.

Listen to Sutton, a custom knife maker, talk about the curiously crosshatched ivory: "It would be interesting if we could see over thousands of years where that mammoth was, what happened to it and how did the streaks and gouges get on its tusk. What did the mammoth run up against?"

That's SEWE in a heartbeat; a well-stirred cocktail of highbrow art galas and hunting animal showmanship mixed with down-to-earth wildlife conservation efforts and precision arts and crafts exhibits that can be breathtaking.

In other words, for every high-dollar VIP soiree or auction, there's a mess of spectacles and exhibits at little cost beyond an admission ticket. Sometimes you can walk up on a wonder like a bald eagle cruising low through Marion Square as part of The Center for Birds of Preys' flight demonstration; you just won't be able to get close without a ticket. (And a tip: Call in your dinner reservations early - days early - as thousands of people will be descending on the Lowcountry from the world over.)

The DockDogs retriever competition at Brittlebank Park is always a crowd pleaser. "Jungle Jack" Hanna, the vaunted animal guru, is a staple who occasionally startles attendees walking by in a crowd with something pretty wild on a chain. Tactile artistry like bronze animal sculptures captivate.

But this show is more than that: A vein of conservation education pulses through it. The expo provides space for groups such as the Lowcountry Conservation Initiative, which aims to protect regional wildlife and landscape.

Then there's the sometimes overlooked fine crafts exhibits; table after table of custom work largely by regional artisans, items like carved canoe paddles and duck calls, exquisite iron fire kettles, jewelry, Damascus steel knives, some of it rare and pricey, some not. All of it as extraordinary as it is useful.

"These people are amazing," said John Powell, SEWE executive director.

That's where you'll find Sutton, of Sutton Custom Knives, a retired New Bern, N.C., administrator who puts hands and heart into each blade he shapes.

Sutton is one of more than 70 artisans exhibiting this year. He's not the featured knifemaker and not the best known. But his work, like work all across the tables, stands up to the best.

Sutton, 67, used to craft ornate Queen Anne-style furniture until the day he found himself fascinated by a custom knife at a show.

"I've been making these a long time, probably with some notoriety. But I'm just one of the knifemakers out there who's really trying to make them as pretty as I can, with utility and quality," Sutton said. "Unlike furniture, where you're basically working with wood, the knives are small pieces you can put all of yourself into and then put it in your hand," he said. "You can spend weeks and weeks and weeks on it and put it in your hand."

Reach Bo Petersen at 937-5744, @bopete on twitter or Bo Petersen Reporting on Facebook.