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The History of Victorinox and the Swiss Army Knife

Victorinox produces more than 60,000 pocket knives a day. In fact, in 2017, the company produced its 500-millionth Swiss Army Knife!

While the number sounds incredible, the largest cutlery manufacturer of Europe has the backing of a long illustrious history behind its capability. From Swiss Army knives to kitchen knives, watches, and travel luggage, Victorinox is everywhere now.

But do you know how this outstanding company was formed?

With a history of over 130 years, Victorinox, today is recognized as one of the most trusted brands all over the world.

Victorinox Headquarters
Victorinox Headquarters, Ibach, Switzerland
| Image Source: Victorinox

But the roots of the company date back more than a century ago in a small factory in Switzerland.

The History of Victorinox

It all started in a beautiful village called Ibach, in the Canton of Schwyz, Switzerland.

In 1884, Karl Elsener, the fourth son of a hat maker, Balthasar Elsener-Ott, had returned home after completing an apprenticeship as a knife maker. It was the time of the industrial revolution in Europe.

With the help of his mother Victoria, Carl Elsener set up a small cutlery factory in Ibach.

Karl Elsener
Karl Elsener | Image Source: Victorinox

Elsener always wanted to be a large scale manufacturer. He brought in master cutlers from abroad to work in his factory and also took the initiative to train local farm boys from Schwyz as apprentices.

His factory produced surgical equipment for hospitals and doctors in and around the region.

The lack of any industry in Schwyz at that time led many young farmers to emigrate to North America, Australia, or New Zealand. Carl Elsener wanted to change this scenario and create employment opportunities in the region.

Victorinox Factory
Factory in Ibach, 1884 | Image source: Victorinox

With this motive, he established the Association of Swiss Master Cutlers in 1891.

The association was kind of an indigenous cottage industry. The formation of the association enabled the production of various pieces of knives at different locations. Then the various pieces were brought to the assembly locations where master cutlers assembled the knives by hand.

The Contract for the Swiss Army Soldier Knife

The Switzerland army decided to provide a new folding knife to its soldiers during the late 1880s.  The army had its own specifications for the knife, as it had to be suitable for use by the army in opening canned food as well as disassembling the Swiss service rifle, the Schmidt–Rubin. This rifle required a screwdriver during assembly and disassembly for servicing.

At that time there was no Swiss company that could handle the volume of the order from the Swiss army. As a result, the contract for the folding knife naturally went to Wester & Co, a company based in Solingen, Germany. Solingen is renowned for the manufacturing of swords and cutlery knives and is often called the City of Blades.

As such, Wester & Co produced and delivered the first knife for the Swiss army. Apart from them, some other companies also got to manufacture this model. There were more than ten companies which directly or indirectly manufactured and assembled the knife or parts of the knife, most of them being from Germany.

This knife model received the official designation as Model 1890, in January 1891. The 1890 model had a blade, reamer, can-opener, and screwdriver. The scales were made of oak wood.

Karl Elsener, a nationalist by heart, did not like the idea of the pocket knife meant to be used by the Swiss army being made outside of Switzerland.

In 1891, Karl Elsener got the contract between the Swiss Army and Wester & Co, to be awarded to the Association of Swiss Master Cutlers, to produce the model 1890 in Switzerland itself. 

This model 1890 later came to be known as the Victorinox Soldier.

Elsener did manage to deliver the supply, but couldn’t keep the manufacturing cost down to remain competitive with the German manufactures.

Model 1890
Model 1890 | Image Source: Sakwiki

The German companies, owing to their larger scale, managed to keep their manufacturing cost much lower. Elsener’s company almost went to the verge of bankruptcy at that time.

The Invention of the Officer’s Knife

The model 1890 was a pretty bulky and heavy knife. Karl Elsener wanted to design a knife that was much lighter and elegant while maintaining the same functionality.

Elsener envisioned something new, and accordingly, he engineered two special springs to be used in the new design in 1897.

This design enabled the knife to have tools on both sides of the handle using the special spring mechanism. It made it possible to operate six different tools in only two springs – a breakthrough design. The new design led to a more compact and functional folding pocket knife.

All Victorinox pocket knives still depend on this breakthrough design even today.

With the new spring design, Elsener manufactured an improved version of a pocket knife.

This knife, in addition to the blade, awl, can-opener, and screwdriver, also had a second smaller knife and a corkscrew.

Officier's Knife
A newer version of the Officer’s Knife | Image Source: Sakwiki

He named this new model ‘Schweizer Offiziers- und Sportmesser’ (Swiss officer’s and sports knife). This model went on to become the first iconic ’Swiss Army Knife’ in the future.

The design was  officially patented on June 12, 1897.

Though the Swiss army did not officially commission this knife to the army, it was available for purchase privately at cutlery shops along with the Soldier knife. It became popularly referred to as the Officer’s Knife.

This breakthrough in pocket knife design led Elsener to produce many other ingenious pocket knives. However, unlike the model 1890, he identified these knives with specific names, like Student’s Knife, Farmer’s Knife, Cadet Knife, etc.

These multipurpose pocket knives caught the imagination of the people and became very popular, ultimately saving the company from bankruptcy.

In Switzerland, every able-bodied male serves in the army either as a soldier or an officer. This expanded the market considerably for Victorinox as they had a pocket knife model for everyone in the army. Moreover, they could successfully market their pocket knives internationally giving a much-needed boost to the company.

All Swiss Army Knives are made in Switzerland. The maximum production happens in their factory located in Ibach, in the canton of Schwyz. Some Swiss Army Knives are also made in Delemont, Jura, in the erstwhile Wenger factory, now under the Victorinox brand.

Contrary to popular belief, none of the Swiss Army Knives are made in China. There are some accessories sold by Victorinox that are made in China, but Victorinox is always particular about making the blades and tools of the SAK in Switzerland itself to maintain consistent quality.

Today, almost half of the total workforce of Victorinox still works in the original factory at Ibach. The success of Victorinox made the village Ibach to be known as the Swiss Knife valley.

How 9/11 affected Victorinox

After the events of 9/11, security was beefed up in all domestic and international airports. New rules were introduced which prevented any sort of sharp object to be carried along in the flight in the hand baggage. This was accompanied by banning the sale of sharp objects in airports, including pocket knives.

This rule hit companies like Victorinox hard. Victorinox used to sell a lot of Swiss Army Knives in the airport shops. This ban made their sales drop by 30% overnight. There were reports that over the subsequent period, the sales of the Swiss Army Knife plummeted up to 50%.

However, Victorinox responded to this crisis by diversifying its product line. Victorinox today has five product categories including Swiss Army Knives, Household and Professional Knives, Watches, Fragrances, and Travel Gear.

The value and worldwide recognition of the Swiss Army Knife brand helped in the marketing and distribution of the other product categories.

A family-owned Company

Victorinox, right from its inception till today has remained a family-owned company and has always been headed by an Elsener.

In 1884, Karl Elsener set the foundation of the company with the support of his mother. He was succeeded by his son Carl Elsener II, and then his grandson Carl Elsener III, and finally his great-grandson Carl Elsener IV.

Carl Elsener II is credited of introducing automation in the Swiss Army Knife manufacturing process and setting up the world’s first all-electric hardening plant in Ibach.

Carl Elsener III, also referred to as Carl Elsener Senior, expanded the business significantly. Under his leadership, the Swiss Army Knife became a global phenomenon.

The company grew from a workforce of 80 employees to more than 1000 employees during his leadership.

Carl Elsener Sr.
Carl Elsener Sr | Image source: Commons Wikimedia

It was during the time of Carl Elsener Sr. that Victorinox began producing more than 25 million knives per year.

Today, Victorinox is headed by Carl Elsener Senior’s son, Carl Elsener IV,  also referred to as Carl Elsener Jr.

The Origin of the name ‘Victorinox’

There is an interesting story about how Victorinox got its name. It seems the original cutlery factory set up in 1884 was called ‘Messerfabrik Carl Elsener’, named after its founder.

Elsener’s mother, who supported him throughout the early stages of the company, passed away in 1909. Elsener decided to use her Christian name, ‘Victoria‘, as the name of the company.

The blades of all pocket knives were made of carbon steel at that time. In 1921, stainless steel was invented. This single invention had a significant contribution to modernizing the blade manufacturing industry. Elsener’s company (called Victoria at that time) also started using stainless steel that year.

Stainless steel is called ‘acier inoxydable’ in French, or ‘inox’ in short.  

Carl Elsener II (son of Karl Elsener), who was heading the company at that time, renamed the company to ‘Victorinox’, incorporating the abbreviation ‘inox’ into the then name ‘Victoria’.

From 1921 till today, the company has been known as Victorinox.

Since then, the folks at Victorinox have developed their own variety of stainless steel alloy that they use in the blades and other tools of the Swiss Army Knives.

The Origin of the Swiss Army Knife brand

Victorinox did not become a global brand until the end of the Second World War. After the war, US soldiers stationed in Europe started buying a lot of these Swiss made pocket knives manufactured by Victorinox.

They found the knives quite attractive as well as useful, and wanted them as souvenirs to take back home.

However, the American soldiers found it hard to pronounce the German name of the knife, ‘Offiziersmesser’. So they started calling it Swiss Army Knife.

Soldiers buying SAK
Soldiers buying Swiss Army Knives as souvenirs | Image source: Victorinox

This name ‘Swiss Army Knife’ eventually became so famous that Victorinox patented it and started promoting all such pocket knives manufactured by them with this brand name.

So, in a way, the Americans gave the ubiquitous Swiss Army Knife its name.

Today, the Swiss Army Knife is a well-known brand all over the world. Owing to how versatile and capable these small pocket knives are,  the term Swiss Army Knife is also used as a figure of speech in any scenario indicating extreme utility.

Where Wenger comes into the Picture?

Though Karl Elsener is credited for the manufacture of the first Swiss Army Knife, his company (which later became Victorinox)  never had a monopoly on the manufacturing of the Soldier knife (model 1890) for the Swiss army.

Another Swiss Cutlery Company, named Paul Boéchat & Cie, situated in Delemont, Jura, also started selling pocket knives similar in functionality.

This company was later acquired by Théodore Wenger, and the company was renamed to Wenger.

In 1893, Wenger received a contract from the Swiss army to produce the model 1890 (the Soldier knife).

Incidentally, Ibach in Schwyz where Victorinox is located is a German-speaking region. On the other hand, Wenger was located in Delemont, Jura, which is a French-speaking region. In 1908 the Swiss army split the contract for provisioning the knives between the two companies.

Since then, for nearly a century, Victorinox and Wenger have together produced and provisioned knives to the Swiss army. While Victorinox promoted their knives as ’the Original Swiss Army Knife’, Wenger used ‘the Genuine Swiss Army Knife’ to promote their products.

Though the Swiss Army Knives produced by Victorinox and Wenger were similar in most respects, there always have been differences in style, tool design, and functionality among the various models produced by the two companies. 

A healthy competition between the two companies in terms of quality, functionality, and innovation provided the Swiss army as well as the common people with more options while choosing a SAK.

Victorinox acquired Wenger in 2005 and became the sole supplier of knives to the Swiss army.

Wenger is credited for making the world’s largest Swiss Army Knife, the Giant.

Other Organisations using Victorinox Pocket Knives

The armed forces of at least 20 different countries officially or unofficially use different models of the Swiss Army Knife.

A lesser-known variant of the knife is the German Army Knife, called the GAK. It was designed by Victorinox on the specifications and requirements of the German army in 1976. It is 108mm long, the only model that Victronox designed of that size.

Victorinox, however, was not the only manufacturer of the GAK, as the German Army had contracted other knife manufacturers to manufacture the model. The original design was later replaced by a 111mm design with a one-handed opening blade.

Apart from Germany, the armed forces of the Netherlands, Norway, Malaysia, and the United States have also issued or approved the usage of different versions of the Victorinox Swiss Army Knife.

Victorinox has been a supplier of Swiss Army Knives to NASA since the 1970s. Astronauts have been known to conduct emergency repairs in space using Swiss Army Knives. The model called the Master Craftsman is a standard instrument for NASA astronauts. Victorinox later renamed the model to ‘Astronaut’.

Conclusion

With a long history of over 130 years, Victorinox has perfected the pocket knife design and made the Swiss Army Knife a world-famous brand. These pocket knives are nowadays used in all aspects of life.

Do you know that the New York Museum of Modern Art has kept a Swiss Army Knife for display? This shows that the design of the pocket knife has transcended its purpose to become a work of art.

Today, Germany is the second-largest customer of Victorinox Swiss Army Knives, after the United States. This is surprising considering the fact that Germany has a well-established blade manufacturing industry (remember, Solingen in Germany used to supply pocket knives to the Swiss Army). 

This is because the Swiss Cross is recognized as a symbol of quality. Many companies tried to copy the design but failed to match the quality and craftsmanship of the Original Swiss Army Knife.

From the Swiss Soldier pocket knife to a global brand, Victorinox has come a long way. Nowadays, Swiss Army Knives are sold in more than 130 countries all over the world. The quality, affordability, and longevity of the product make sure that you have a long-lasting relationship with your trusty pocket knife, making Carl Elsener Jr.’s words a reality – a little bit of Switzerland with you forever.

About Me
ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Deb is passionate about pocket tools, bags, and accessories, especially any type of everyday-use gear (or not so everyday-use gear) that makes life efficient, comfortable, and more enjoyable.

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