A short history of the Swiss Army Knife

Why the original Swiss Army Knife, created by Victorinox, still stands for quality, functionality, innovation and iconic design

Wherever you travel, be it for pleasure or business, just make sure that you never leave without your Swiss Army Knife. Or, as the astronaut Chris Hadfield who logged 4,000 hours in space said, "Never leave the planet without a Swiss Knife." It might even save your life!

Portrait-Carl-Elsener CEO-Victorinox CEO Carl Elsener IV

The history of the Victorinox family

What started in 1884 as a cutlery workshop, founded by Karl Elsener I, went on to create a knife for soldiers in the Swiss Army (the first deliveries were in 1891), and it soon became an icon. Today there are over 400 versions of the original knife, made specially for golfers, cigar smokers, sailors and so forth. The company has a powerful family feel, and not just because the present CEO is named Carl Elsener IV, like his great-grandfather Karl. In actual fact, his grandfather and father shared the same name, and this family are proud of the fact that over its long history, the company has never laid anyone off for economic reasons. Employees are all part of the Victorinox family.

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Greatness from small beginnings

The original knife designed by Karl Elsener had a large blade, a screwdriver, a tin opener and a reamer. He created another version for officers, with an additional small blade and a corkscrew. The company name was changed to Victoria in 1909, to commemorate Karl’s mother after her death. In 1921, the suffix ‘inox’ was added to highlight the innovation of a new material, stainless (‘inoxydable’) steel.

Ancient Roman knifeAncient Roman knife

The knives have an illustrious precedent. In the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, there is an Ancient Roman knife that has a knife, spike, pick, spoon and three-pronged fork. It is made using iron and silver, and dates to the 3rd century A.D., crafted in the Mediterranean region. Not surprisingly, the museum has titled it the ‘Roman Swiss Army Knife,’ and the concept is so similar to Victorinox that they often receive requests asking whether it’s a hoax or an April Fool’s joke.

Related: Swiss museums: in & around Zürich

Victorinox-Flagship-Zurich Victorinox Flagship, Zurich

Victorinox has conquered even more of the world than the Ancient Romans did. It is a global brand, still managed from the beautiful town of Ibach, just an hour from Zurich, and it is exported to over 120 countries. Initially, its success was due to the home market, but it became an international favourite from 1945, because U.S. soldiers stationed in Europe bought the Swiss Army Knife in large quantities as a souvenir, and later, tourists followed suit. One visitor said in an interview for the Swiss television, "taking the knife back home is a little bit of Switzerland with you forever".

Related: Swiss museums: in & around Geneva

03 Swiss-Army-Knives Classic Limited-Edition-1bThe modern-day Swiss Amy Knife

Of course, 9.11 marked a massive change. Before then, the knives were sold not just in airport boutiques, but even on board the planes. But the company, like the whole of Switzerland, is accustomed to dealing with problems, and they have diversified production to include watches, travel gear, apparel and fragrance. The Swiss Army still supplies knives to its soldiers, providing ten functions: lock blade, screwdriver, can opener with small screwdriver, lockable bottle opener with screwdriver, wire stripper, reamer, punch, key ring and wood saw. And Victorinox has even designed an air-travel version, with a smaller blade (58 mm) that is allowed in carry-on luggage. The famous red knife with the Swiss flag will be around for a long time yet. www.swissarmy.com

1 Flagship Store Zurich
2 Flagship Store Geneva
3 Brand Store Brunnen