Wenger, the maker of the “Genuine Swiss Army Knife” was often considered a very innovative company. This was the prominent reason why a section of Swiss Army Knife enthusiasts loved Wenger’s knives.
Unfortunately, Wenger SAKs have become a part of history now. But why Wenger failed with a product that is still so well-known and coveted all over the world?
To know the reason for Wenger’s failure as a SAK maker, we have to go back in history to the formation of the company and its design ethos. The history of Wenger as a company is very much interlinked with the history of the Swiss Army Knife.
Formation of Paul Boechat & Cie
The history of Wenger dates back to 1893 when a cutlery manufacturing factory was set up in Courtételle, in the district of Delemont in the Jura Region of Switzerland, by Paul Boechat.
It was the time of the industrial revolution in Europe. The factory was called Paul Boechat & Cie, named after its founder. Spoons, forks, and kitchen cutlery were produced in the factory.
Paul Boechat & Cie quickly became the second-largest industrial cutlery manufacturer in Switzerland.
Contract for Swiss Army Soldier Knife
During that time, the Swiss army was looking for a manufacturer in Switzerland who could make the knife known as Model 1890 (the first model of the ‘Soldier Knife’) in bulk. This knife was a standard issue in the armed forces, and the Swiss army was in the process of shifting the production from German manufacturers to manufacturers in Switzerland.
In 1893, along with Messerfabrik Carl Elsener (later known as Victorinox), Paul Boechat & Cie became the second swiss company to win a contract to make the ‘Soldier Knife’ for the swiss army.
Incidentally, this knife-making business, which evolved with diversifying into a multitude of pocket knife models collectively known all over the world as ‘Swiss Army Knife’, is what would make Wenger a well-known brand in the future.
To know more about the history of Victorinox and The Swiss Army Knife, read this post.
Shortly after, around 1895, some entrepreneurs bought Paul Boechat & Cie.
Entry of Theodore Wenger
Theodore Wenger was an entrepreneur who had also served as a minister in the US. When he returned to Switzerland in 1897, he was hired as the General Manager of Paul Boechat & Cie and inducted into the board to give the company a new direction. Presumably, Paul Boechat & Cie was not doing very well financially at that time.
Under Wenger’s leadership, the factory increased its production of spoons and forks, in addition to knives. This led to a much larger factory in Delemont, covering 18000 square feet.
The factory was then renamed Fabrique Suisse de Coutellerie et Services.
Wenger went on to become the director of the company.
Shortly thereafter, around 1901, he acquired Fabrique Suisse de Coutellerie et Services, and renamed the company Wenger & Co SA. The name was shortened later to Wenger SA, by which the company is still known today. Wenger SA had its headquarters in the Delemont valley, situated in the canton of Jura in Switzerland.
His involvement with the factory was a pivotal moment in the company’s history, as Wenger was responsible for transforming the small business into a renowned factory of quality knives.
The main factory of Wenger at Delemont where the Swiss Army Knives were made was originally set up for the production of tableware spoons and forks.
By 1908, the Swiss govt. withdrew all German contracts, and Victorinox and Wenger each gained a 50% manufacturing contract for the ‘Soldier Knife’.
Theodore Wenger developed an efficient production process and introduced his own designs, which became an instant success.
Theodore Wenger remained associated with the company for more than forty years. Kaspar Oertli headed Wenger SA after Theodore Wenger’s death in 1929.
During this era, Wenger’s Swiss Army knives became a symbol of innovation, quality, and excellence.
Significance of Wenger Swiss Army Knives
Wenger as one of the makers of the Swiss Army Knife played a significant role in developing the brand and making it popular among the masses. Wenger’s design philosophy was tilted more towards versatility, which led them to produce some of the most innovative Swiss Army Knives ever known.
It is interesting to note that while Victorinox invented the original model of the versatile knife with their two-spring system (the Officer’s Knife), it was Wenger who stretched the design to its limits. Interested to know about some of the popular models that Wenger made? Here is a short list.
Wenger even experimented with how many tools they can fit into a Swiss Army Knife by designing Model 16999, commonly known as the Wenger Giant, which went on to bag a Guinness World Record.
I have written everything about the Wenger Giant and the inspirations behind it. Don’t miss this post.
Innovations of Wenger
Some of the innovations of Wenger in Swiss Army Knife design are:
- Locking blade with their Packlock system (in 85mm Wenger SAKs)
- Ergonomic scales/handles with rubber/plastic inlays (EvoGrip line of SAKs)
- Self-locking bottle-opener/screwdriver
- Larger models of Swiss Army Knives (130mm Ranger and RangerGrip models)
There was always healthy competition between Victorinox and Wenger and both companies pushed each other in quality, design, and innovation.
Many SAK experts and enthusiasts have often regarded Wenger as more innovative than Victorinox, even though Victorinox did maintain a slight edge in quality.
I have written a detailed post explaining the significant differences between Wenger and Victorinox Swiss Army Knives.
Why Wenger Went Bankrupt
Wenger was doing pretty well as a company and expanded its product line with luggage and watches. But the Swiss Army Knife was still their main product and brought the bulk of the revenue. However, everything changed after the events of 9/11.
It is a typical case of how events in one part of the world can have far-reaching effects. 9/11 brought about a crisis in the US economy, which was Wenger’s main market of Swiss Army Knives. But what hit the company hard was the new security restrictions in airports.
A large part of the sale of Swiss Army knives was dependent on the duty-free airport shops. With increased security regulations on carrying pocket knives while traveling, Swiss Army Knives were removed from the shelves of these shops within days.
It is said the restrictions on selling Swiss Army Knives in duty-free shops in airports brought Wenger’s revenue down by more than 50% within weeks.
Huge quantities of knives were sent back to Wenger factories and warehouses. Wenger ultimately could not come out of this crisis and declared bankruptcy.
You might be wondering how Victorinox is still thriving when Wenger ceases to exist as a company now. Didn’t 9/11 impact Victorinox?
Well, it did, and almost as hard as Wenger. But there are certain things that Victorinox did well to come out of the crisis.
- Victorinox was a much larger company than Wenger, had a wider network of sales, and more money in its reserves. The company had the reserves to absorb losses for years.
- When the situation worsened, Victorinox even helped its employees to get part-time jobs outside of Victorinox factories, thus gaining their loyalty. All such employees came back to Victorinox later.
- Victorinox worked hard to diversify its product line with luggage, perfume, and watches, and used its famous brand name to market these new products. This strategy helped them to slowly but steadily improve their revenue.
Purchase of Wenger by Victorinox
Victorinox bought Wenger on April 6, 2005. As per Victorinox, the decision to buy Wenger was made so that no foreign company could get hold of Wenger.
Especially, Victorinox was wary that Chinese companies may take control of Wenger which will take the production of Swiss Army Knives outside Switzerland. They also feared that Chinese ownership meant that the impeccable quality that Swiss Army Knives are known for will be compromised, which will adversely affect the reputation of the brand as a whole.
With the ownership of their one and only rival Wenger, Victorinox became the sole owner of the ‘Swiss Army Knife’ brand and the only company with the contract to supply the standard issue knife to the Swiss army.
Termination of Production of the Wenger Swiss Army Knife
After owning Wenger, Victorinox let Wenger function as an independent entity and continue making Swiss Army Knives with the Wenger logo and tagline ‘Genuine Swiss Army Knife’. This arrangement continued for nine years.
In 2013, however, market dynamics led Victorinox to decide to kill the Wenger brand of Swiss Army Knives, and integrate Wenger products into the Victorinox line. Victorinox did retain all employees of the Delemont factory site.
“Many consumers can hardly distinguish between the knife products from Victorinox and Wenger and the global fight for survival is getting increasingly fierce”
– Carl Elsener (CEO of Victorinox)
“The Swiss Army knife was not differentiated for the consumer abroad – we had to fix that confusion. That’s why we are joining forces and focusing on one brand: Victorinox… The concentration of forces will allow the group to grow within the global competitive environment, to enhance the product range, and to strengthen the Delémont site in the long term”
– Urs Keiser (Victorinox spokesperson)
The decision marked the end of an era for Wenger Swiss Army Knife’s iconic history. Though the move did strengthen the marketing of the Swiss Army Knife brand, it was a tragedy for collectors of Wenger SAKs, as well as employees of Wenger’s factory at Delemont.
The Wenger-branded Swiss Army Knife production was completely stopped by 2014. The Wenger factory at Delemont still operated and kept producing Swiss Army Knives, but with Victorinox branding.
This led to the renaming of the factory at Delemont (see image below | source: forums.multitool.org).
Some of the Wenger designs were retained, however, but with Victorinox branding and logo. In fact, Victorinox started a new line of Swiss Army Knife products called the Delemont Collection which featured only Wenger designs.
However, note that the Delemont Collection knives, though inspired by Wenger’s designs, have significant differences. I have explained this in detail in this post.
Continuation of the Wenger Brand
Wenger, as a brand did not die, however. The other products of Wenger like kitchen knives, watches, lighters, and travel accessories like shoes, backpacks, luggage, and wallets, all continue to be sold with the Wenger name, as a sub-brand of Victorinox. Wenger just does not make any Swiss Army Knives nowadays.
Wenger also no longer calls itself “Maker of the genuine Swiss Army Knife”. Wenger’s new slogan is “A Swiss Company Since 1893”.
Wenger used to make just about 8% of the total Swiss Army Knives produced in a year. As a result, Wenger-branded SAKs were already in short supply compared to Vic-branded SAKs in the market. This made Wenger somewhat of an exclusive brand to own, especially for SAK lovers.
Victorinox produces 25 million knives a year compared with 2.2 million produced by Wenger”Urs Keiser (Victorinox spokesperson)
The Future of Wenger Knife
Today, Wenger Swiss Army Knives are fast becoming collector’s items. If you are lucky, you may get hold of some of their original models in marketplaces like eBay and Etsy. I have noticed that even Victorinox Delemont collection SAKs are becoming hard to find nowadays.
Victorinox currently makes one Swiss Army Knife model with the Wenger logo, called the ‘Victorinox Wenger knife’, commonly referred to as the ‘Wenger Red’.
This is made in the Delemont factory and is the only Swiss Army Knife with a Wenger logo that is still officially in production. This model is very similar to the model Victorinox Classic.
Interestingly, some of the employees of the Delemont site (including Peter Hug, the last CEO of Wenger) have joined another Swiss knife-making company – Swiza!
A Swiza pocket knife has won the Red Dot Design Award in 2016. You can bet some of the erstwhile Wenger employees probably have contributed to the Swiza knife design.
Swiza, a renowned name in clock manufacturing, has recently started its pocket knife division.
Want to know how good a Swiza pocket knife is? Here is a detailed comparison between two similar Swiss pocket knives, a Swiza D04 and a Victorinox Super Tinker.
Wenger’s knife-making history is strongly intertwined with the history of the iconic Swiss Army Knife. Having started making Swiss Army Knives almost at the same time as Victorinox, Wenger had over a century of experience in knife craftmanship.
Starting from winning the contract for Soldier Knife in 1893, to being owned by rival Victorinox, and the eventual phasing out of the knife-making division in 2013, Wenger knives has had a long and interesting history.
Though Wenger is still thriving as a maker of watches and outdoor products, a Wenger Swiss Army Knife is something that exists only in history, and in the drawers and showcases of knife collectors, enthusiasts, and die-hard fans of Wenger’s knives.