Swiss Army Knife

Classic projects: Swiss Army knife

We take a look at Karl Elsener's iconic design, how it came about, and why its sales have declined in the 21st century.

There can't be many readers of E&T who don't own a Swiss Army Knife. With its distinctive red livery and logo based on the Swiss flag, and a dazzling multitude of practical tools for fixing things and opening the occasional emergency bottle of wine, it's in everyone's toolkit.

But the origin of the Swiss Army Knife is more serious and, as its name suggests, it has a military history, having been designed as a one-stop-shop for routine maintenance on the Schmidt-Rubin M1889 Swiss service rifle in the late 19th century. The name we now know the multi-tool by didn't become widespread until the Second World War: it is in fact a nickname given to the instrument by US soldiers who couldn't pronounce the original German 'Schweizer Offiziersmesser' or Swiss officer's knife.

Early knives were designed by Swiss cutler Karl Elsener in an attempt to create employment in Switzerland, one of the poorest countries in Europe in the 1890s. The idea was that he would form a cooperative that would supply standard issue knives for the Swiss Army. The original 25 manufacturers were eventually whittled down to just two – Elsener's Victorinox and Wenger – who were both awarded contracts by the Swiss government, partially to promote competition and partially to be seen to be providing work to both French and German regions of the country. Victorinox to this day produces the 'original', while Wenger produces the 'genuine' knife. The brands remain separate, despite Victorianox acquiring Wenger in 2005.

The earliest incarnation of what was to become the Swiss Army Knife wasn't made in Switzerland due to lack of production capacity. Modell 1890 was manufactured by Wester & Co in Germany. But by 1891 Elsener had taken over production and, unhappy with the design, he set about reworking the knife. By 1896 a model with tools attached to both ends using a spring mechanism became the first 'classic' Swiss Army Knife.

The new design allowed Elsener to incorporate twice as many devices into his multi-tool (such as a corkscrew and a second cutting blade). His military clients lost interest in this burgeoning diversity, but he forged ahead, patenting his innovation and marketing it as the 'Officer's and Sports Knife'. For a century the two companies would develop an ever increasing (and sometimes bizarre) range of functions, leading to an iconic family of penknives.

The success of the brand relies on the three factors of identity, reliability and continual supply to military clientele. Although we tend to think of the Swiss Army Knife as being red and festooned with gadgets, the current issue Swiss Armed Forces specification product – the Soldier Knife 08 – is dark-grey and black. Military personnel receive the knife on commencement of basic training. The Swiss Army experimented with a more elaborate design for non-commissioned offices that included a corkscrew, but as this was not deemed 'essential for survival' the model was withdrawn.

The terror attacks of 9/11 put the manufacturer under stress as restrictions on what could be taken into aeroplane cabins were tightened. Sales of multi-purpose knives fell by 30 per cent, leading Victorinox to further diversification of its product portfolio. Today products carrying the famous shield and cross logo include watches, outdoor clothing and even a range of Swiss Army fragrances for both men and women that apparently transport the wearer "into the world of snow-capped mountains, majestic glaciers, lush meadows and glistening alpine lakes".

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