Swiss Army Knife: Victorinox's much-loved tool

The Swiss Army Knife is a world favourite. E&T discovers just how much goes into manufacturing these pocket marvels.

"I was installing my new invention for sewage at Seneca Falls, NY," wrote Gilbert A Levin, an engineer from the US.

"One morning, as I was crossing the bridge over the aeration tank of the treatment plant, I saw that the setting on one of the instruments was incorrect. I took out my Swiss Army Knife to make the necessary adjustment.

"The knife slipped out of my hand and fell into the aeration tank whose function is to oxidise organic waste - the oxidising environment which is extremely corrosive to metals. Four years later, I received a small parcel with a note from Al Hawk, the supervisor of the Seneca Falls plant. They had emptied the aeration tank and found my knife at the bottom. The parcel contained the knife which was in astonishingly good condition. The plastic casing and cover had only suffered very minor damage…

"I can assure you that very few products could have survived treatment like this, the components would have dissolved or simply disappeared…"

I used to regard my multi-function Swiss Army Knife, bought in Lucerne in 1991, as one of my most treasured possessions. For many years the knife had been my faithful travel companion. It had opened innumerable wine bottles. It had cut through countless chunks of cheese and sausage. At home, it had helped me carry out multiple domestic chores. That is why I am still reeling from the shock of having my precious knife confiscated in Edinburgh airport several years ago - in the wake of 9/11 - when I absent-mindedly forgot to put it in my suitcase and was carrying it in my cabin luggage.

It was like losing a trusted friend. It didn't take long to buy a replacement, of course, and I never travel without a new Swiss Army Knife, making sure (once bitten, twice shy) I take it out of my shoulder bag before heading for the airport.

The blow of losing my little knife appears insignificant, however, compared to the post-9/11 upset experienced by its makers - the famous Victorinox factory in the small Swiss town of Ibach, Canton Schwyz, and particularly by Carl Elsener, the factory's CEO and the great-grandson of its founder Karl Elsener, the Swiss Army Knife inventor. 

"Our sales plummeted almost overnight," he says. "All airport shops were suddenly banned from selling knives and we lost 30 per cent of our income that came from the so-called spontaneous airport purchases."

What would an ordinary company do in this situation? Most likely, it would shut down some of its production lines and get rid of a considerable chunk of its workforce to cut costs. Not Victorinox. In all 125 years of its existence, the factory hasn't fired a single person (906 people are currently employed there) for economic reasons.

The Victorinox solution was to develop and manufacture new products: laser-fronted ballpoint pens, bladeless 'inflight' knives, Swiss Memory and Swiss Flash foldable USB drives with up to 16GB storage capacity, Swiss Card tool kits, My First Victorinox for children, and so on - and to explore new markets. In the true Swiss spirit of survival, instead of succumbing to the disaster, they chose to regard it as an opportunity.

Defensive diversification

Among the factory's new products is the Victorinox Rescue Tool, developed in co-operation with Swiss emergency and rescue services. With its one-thumb-opening blade, a disc glass saw and a glass breaker, it can be opened and made ready for use in seconds. If trapped in a car, the rounded belt cutter can be used to cut through seatbelts. The blades and the 6mm screwdriver are fixed in position when open, thanks to the liner lock mechanism. The very outward look of the Rescue Tool is eye-catching due to its luminescent yellow grips. Indispensable for mountain climbers, firemen and rescue workers, it can also come in handy for any motorist or biker. The first customers' feedback shows that the Rescue Tool is already saving lives.

In the neat office of Urs Wyss, Victorinox's head of PR, I was shown the first ever knife produced in 1891. The Soldier's Knife, as it was then called, has a wood-coated handle. Its single blade and the can opener are both made of iron (stainless steel appeared 30 years later, in 1921), but it opens and closes with the same characteristic loud click as my relatively new knife. The mechanism feels as tight as if the knife was made yesterday.

"It is our main secret - the indestructible spring," explains Wyss. "Precision and attention to small detail that no imitators were able to reproduce. We call the distinctive clicking sound it makes 'walk-and-talk'."

From one of his office drawers he takes out a large box with dozens of fake 'Swiss Army' knives, made mostly in China. Many of them look similar to the original; they even have the familiar Swiss cross on the handle. I open one at random. The blade feels loose and limp, like a handshake of a dying octogenarian, and there's no walk-and-talk. The low quality spring is an immediate give-away.

"We have exhausted all legal means for the brand protection of our popular products," says Carl Elsener. "Our best means of protection is quality which remains unsurpassed and speaks louder than words…" As loud as the genuine walk-and-talk, I am tempted to add.

The knife's origins

It all started in 1884, when Switzerland was one of the poorest countries in Europe. Many unemployed Swiss were forced to emigrate to the USA, Australia and Tasmania (the latter still has a sizeable community of Swiss migrants). It was then that young cutlery maker Elsener, supported by his mother Victoria, founded the factory with the aim of producing knives for the soldiers of the famously non-belligerent Swiss Army.

The first knives were delivered in 1891. They were robust and heavy and that was why Karl went on to develop a lighter and more elegant one, with two springs and six tools, which he called 'Officer's and Sports Knife'. The brand was officially registered in 1897 and was a great success. The company was soon able to pay off its creditors and made its first profit. The name Officer's Knife, however, never took off - perhaps it sounded too elitist - and in the 1930s the product was renamed Swiss Army Knife.

After the death of his mother, Elsener chose her first name as the company's brand name, and when stainless steel came to Ibach in 1923, the suffix 'inox' - the international designation for stainless steel - was added to it. That was how Victorinox, one of Europe's most recognisable trademarks, came into existence.

The real breakthrough in the company's sales occurred after World War Two when American GIs bought the Swiss knives in Europe and took them to the US where they quickly became a very strong brand.

Today, the Victorinox factory in Ibach assembles 27,000 knives a day, plus nearly 100,000 other items. They come in over 100 different variations, with the flagship being the so-called SwissChamp with 33 features. More than 450 steps are required in its manufacture.

Both the New York Museum of Modern Art and the State Museum of Applied Art in Munich have included it in their permanent collections for excellence in design. All American Presidents starting with Lyndon Johnson, the Pope and all NASA astronauts carry their personalised Swiss Army Knives (the latter had often found them handy and indispensable during space missions). With Victorinox's agreement, over 250 different companies all over the globe have used the Swiss Army Knife image as a symbol of their products' quality.

At present, knives are only 40 per cent of the company's output (20 years ago it was 100 per cent!) which now includes lots of other products: tools, kitchen utensils, watches, cosmetics, perfumes, luggage items and casual clothes, of which two collections a year are unveiled in the US and Japan. Last autumn, Victorinox opened a new store in London - its largest in Europe - where all its merchandise, not just knives, can be bought.

From space to the Alps

"I was on board the space shuttle Atlantis," wrote NASA astronaut Chris Hadfield. "Our task was to dock with the Russian space station. It was my job to open the hatch of the shuttle so that we could enter the station. I had to undo a lot of little screws, cut through cables and re-position the camera. My only tools were three small keys that the Russians sent to us. These sufficed for undoing some of the screws, but were not capable of doing all that I had to do. I was about to go back to the middle deck of the shuttle to fetch my big tool kit, but then I said to myself: why not use the knife? Thanks to the Swiss Army Knife, I was able to open the hatch…"

The location of Victorinox factory is near-idyllic. Most of the oblong building's vast windows overlook the permanently snow-capped Alpine peaks. Urs Wyss took me on a short tour of the production line so that I could observe every step of the knife-making: from hardening martensitic stainless steel at temperatures between 1010 and 1060°C (to make the blades flexible and edge-retaining) to tempering, annealing, grinding, polishing and sharpening.

And the quality control, of course, which is particularly strict at Victorinox and during which every single blade of the finished knives is opened and checked. An interesting detail: only women work at the quality-control stretch of the assembly line. Why? "Because their fine motor skills are generally more distinctive," explains Wyss.

Among the workers I see a number of young people in their teens. Victorinox runs a comprehensive two-year apprenticeship scheme. Having completed it, the youngsters become part of the factory's highly paid and well looked after workforce.

As we were walking through light and spacious factory premises, the workers were having one of their seven-per-shift Alexander technique exercise breaks.

"I started my work in a hospital of a small town called Tororo in Uganda two years ago," wrote Dr John Ross from Canada. "For my work I brought a wide range of surgical instruments, one of which was a surgical saw for amputations. Shortly after my arrival here, the surgical saw was stolen. So my Swiss Army Knife was sterilised in boiling water and its saw used for amputations. It worked very well. It took an entire six months to get a new surgical saw. During this time I carried out at least six amputations using the saw on the knife. Although the knife lost its lovely red plastic cover due to being repeatedly boiled in water, the instruments otherwise worked faultlessly…"

"What's the secret of your continuing success?" I ask Elsener before leaving Victorinox.

"Pride, modesty and family values," he replies and explains: "We are proud of our product and its history. It has become a global icon, but we stay modest about it and concentrate solely on improving it. Nor a revolution, but a continuous evolution of range and quality.

"Having grown manifold, we still remain a family-run company where family values are of utmost importance."

The Elsener family remains the factory's main shareholder, although it now controls only 10 per cent of them. Two of the family's fifth generation - Carl's children - are already working at Victorinox: one in the IT department, the other in book keeping.

Family values or not, one thing is certain: during its 125 years of operation, Victorinox has succeeded in creating a product which is not simply popular, but also loved. I certainly love my Victorinox 'Cyber Tool' - the replacement for my previous, confiscated, one bought in 1991 - and will try never to lose it again.

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