IBACH, Switzerland--If you thought it might be cool to see how Swiss Army knives are made, I'm here to tell you, it's even cooler than you imagined.
Picture, for example, dozens and dozens and dozens of bins full nearly to overflowing with some of the little tools that anyone who has ever had one of the famous knives knows so well: the tweezers, the corkscrew, the toothpick, and even the key ring. Or boxes stacked up with long spindles of Swiss Army knife scissors. Or even better, long rows of the blades that make up half of the scissors.
There's no doubt about it, a visit to the Victorinox factory in this small town in central Switzerland affords a guest a visual feast, and as part of Road Trip 2011, I was lucky enough to get to gorge on it.
Amazingly, in an era of globalization and outsourcing, Victorinox makes every single one of its Swiss Army knives in its small factory here. All told, it makes more than 350 different models, and there are more than 800 different tools that go into those many scores of models. Actually, though, there are two different brands making what can be called official Swiss Army knives: Victorinox, and Wenger, which for decades, because of a government wish not to show regional favortism, shared the honor of making pocket knives for Swiss soldiers. But in 2005, Victorinox bought Wenger.
Though Victorinox is now a world-famous brand, the company wasn't always known by that name. According to Urs Wyss, my host in Ibach, the company was started in 1884 by Karl Elsener, a local man whose mother had made money with a hat business, and who wanted to help create jobs in the countryside.
Starting in 1890, the Swiss government decided it wanted to order pocket knives for each soldier, and Elsener recognized a great business opportunity. Wyss said that Elsener quickly formed an alliance of fellow cutlers and set out to win the contract. However, due to competition from a German company, the price offered for the knives quickly fell, and his new colleagues abandoned him. Thanks only to funds provided by friends and family, Elsener managed to stay afloat, and having won the government contract, in 1891, he produced the first soldier's Swiss Army knife.
The deal was a big winner for Elsener and his new company. He began turning out thousands of the knives, and within a few years he thought that the government might want to buy a separate pocket knife for its Army officers. But the government had other ideas: it felt that officers were holding on to the soldier's knives they'd originally gotten, and it decided not to invest the additional money. Still, Elsener began producing an officer's knife--but only for the consumer market.
Even today, the Swiss government buys a pocket knife for each of its soldiers. Yet since 1891, there have been just eight total models created for the Swiss military, the most recent of which was released in 2008. In general, Wyss said, the new models tend to come along in relation to other new Swiss military equipment like its rifles.
In 1909, Elsener recognized that due to a number of German companies imitating the design of his Swiss Army knives, he needed to distinguish his products. That's when, Wyss said, Elsener came up with what is now an iconic logo, the cross-and-shield design that is on every one of Victorinox's products.
But at that time, the company was still known as the Elsener Knife Company. However, that same year, the founder's mother died, and he decided to change the name to honor her. From that point on, the blades all were marked with her name, Victoria on their base. In 1921, stainless steel was invented, a process that the company was involved with, and in Europe, the term that was used for the new form of metal was "inox," for "inoxidable," meaning stainless, said Wyss. And shortly afterwards, the company's name was officially changed to Victorinox, in honor of Elsener's mother, and the new metal.
Karl Elsener ran the company until 1918. From that point, his son, Carl II, took over, and he helmed the firm until 1950. Then it was Carl III's turn, until 2007. Today, Carl IV heads the company. However, the company is officially run by a family foundation at this point, and none of the family can pull out their shares.
Today, Victorinox has about 950 people working in Ibach, and is essentially a "big middle-" sized company, said Wyss. When you add in the company's watch-making business, it has a total of about 1,800 people.
Despite the success that came with the Swiss government contract, the company most likely wouldn't be a household name if it hadn't been for the fact that after World War II ended, American soldiers began buying Swiss Army knives in Germany, France, and Belgium--they were inexpensive for Americans given the exchange rate at the time--and taking them home in quantity to give to friends and family as gifts. This almost instantly created a major new market for Victorinox's knives, and all without any additional marketing expense.
The U.S. market remains the biggest for Victorinox--even though sales plummeted after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. But in the years since, sales have returned, and today, Victorinox and its Wenger subsidiary export more than 7 million Swiss Army knives to the U.S.
Whether you buy one in Venice, California or Venice, Italy, the product is the same. And it all comes from this small factory at the foot of two beautiful mountains, about an hour from Zurich.
Inside the building, thanks to two shifts of workers a day, Victorinox turns out 17 million different Swiss Army knife parts a year.
To visit the factory and to get a chance to look at all those bins of corkscrews, and stacks of carousels of instantly-recognizable red knife handles, and to see the workers standing there personally putting tweezers and toothpicks into their little slots, you can't help but be surprised that something so famous, and so ubiquitous has such fairy-tale origins.