Schwyz, Switzerland: A century and a quarter after a master cutler set out to supply Swiss soldiers with a survival tool, the iconic Swiss Army knife still adjusts gun sights, cuts cheese and opens cans.
But deep in Switzerland’s rural Alpine heartland, Karl Elsener’s descendants at Victorinox, the last firm in the country that still makes the pocket knives, have been forced to adapt to the urban jungle.
Apart from the hallmark blades, the corkscrew — originally sold to officers only — tweezers, and screwdrivers, the nowadays 100-strong range includes a “cyber tool” to fix computers, a USB key and a blunt-tipped children’s knife.
Former rival and now subsidiary Wenger recently added the folding nail clipper to the nail file, while London’s Bond Street, New York’s Soho and Tokyo’s Ginza rival army barracks around the world as outlets.
Victorinox president Carl Elsener is eyeing a Bluetooth-equipped remote controller for business presentations next, and even fingerprint ID to secure data stored on the computer memory key.
“We always try to be very close to the market and get new ideas,” said Elsener junior, great-grandson of the company’s founder.
Although the modern discourse is imbued with marketing speak, Elsener says the family firm has poured “a lot of soul” for more than 125 years into developing the legendary red tool.
“The Swiss Army knife became the reliable companion for many expeditions, to the North Pole, the South Pole, in the Amazon, to Mount Everest, even official equipment of the space shuttle crews,” said Elsener with pride.
“Powerful presidents have been using the Swiss Army knife as a gift for their visitors to the White House,” he added, also recalling that it was once used to perform an in-flight emergency tracheotomy high above the Philippines.
An exhibition at the Swiss National Museum in Schwyz, near the firm’s headquarters, retraces the evolution of pocket knives “from tool to icon”, revealing the far more rural flavour of the early models.
Apart from replacing daggers, the European ancestors of the multipurpose tool were designed to saw wood, castrate boar, pluck feathers or sew potato sacks.
In Italy an ornate small folding blade was dubbed the “coltello d’amore” — the knife of love — an engagement gift to encourage the future husband to remain faithful.
Ominously, it was hung above the couple’s bed.
The devout Karl Elsener was motivated by more earthy, practical values and the kind of business acumen that seems to run in the family.
After learning his trade in Switzerland, France and Germany, he set up his cutlery and knife workshop in the village of Ibach in 1884.
The Swiss army wanted to supply conscripts with a knife they could also use to maintain their new rifle and open tinned food, something of a novelty for army rations at the time.
Just as his great grandson is today trying to fend off cheap competition from the Far East, Victorinox’s founder was irritated by the military’s bid to turn to Germany’s steel industry for mass production.
So he convinced local cutlers like himself to club together and jointly manufacture the pocket knife in Switzerland by 1891.
“The knife was a bit bulky and heavy so my grandfather decided to develop a lighter more elegant knife with additional functions. One of them, of course, was the corkscrew,” he explained.
That evolved into the officer’s knife, patented in 1897, with six instead of four functions, the rounded ends and the characteristic Swiss cross on the body. Wenger claims paternity for the flattened sides.
“The history begins with the soldier’s knife for the Swiss army,” explained exhibition organiser Pia Schubiger.
“But the cult came with the officer’s knife.”
US soldiers were responsible for giving the pocket knife wider international resonance after World War II. They eventually bought them at US army ‘PX´ stores in Europe and gave them to relatives or friends back home.
“Pronouncing ‘Schweizeroffiziersmesser´ was too difficult so they just called it the Swiss Army knife,” said Elsener.
But the growing diversity of the device is also down to a battle for economic survival. “Swiss Army” is nowadays a commercial trademark.
Eight years ago, international sales dipped after pocket knives were banned from airliner cabins in the aftermath of the 11 September, 2001 attacks, adding to the pressure from competition and new multipurpose portable tools.
“11 September was our worst moment because practically from one day to the next our output dropped 30%,” said Elsener.
In 2005 Victorinox took over its last Swiss rival, Wenger, which was sliding into financial trouble. The brands still trade independently.
“We felt it was important because we wanted to prevent a foreign company taking over Wenger and producing the Swiss Army knife in the Far East or produce other products that could hurt our brand image,” explained Elsener.
More recently the financial and economic crisis has taken its toll, leading to an unspecified drop in sales into the first two months of the year.
About six million of the pocket devices in their umpteen permutations are produced a year, according to Victorinox, on top of a similar number of other tools and kitchen knives, and even branded perfume.
Nonetheless, some earthier traditions die hard.
In February, the Swiss army began to hand out its new issue knife to soldiers.
“Only for recruits who have just joined,” emphasised army spokesman Christoph Brunner.
Now military green and black, the handle is shaped and designed with a better grip to assist single-handed opening. It can also saw wood and uncap beer bottles.
But there is still no corkscrew.