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At 125, Swiss knife has more in folds(China Daily)
Updated: 2009-07-28 08:48 Comments() PrintMailSCHWYZ, 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.
Modern Swiss Army knives are seen lined up under the portrait of founder Karl Elsener during an exhibition at the Swiss National Museum in Schwyz in May 2009. [Agencies]
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.
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.
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.
An exhibition at the Swiss National Museum in Schwyz, near the firm's headquarters, retraces the evolution of pocket knives "from tool to icon".
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The European ancestors of the multi-purpose 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.
Birth of an icon
Karl Elsener was motivated by more earthy and practical values. 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.
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 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 these was the corkscrew," said Elsener.
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.
"The history begins with the soldier's knife for the Swiss army," explained exhibition organizer 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.
"ronouncing 'Schweizeroffiziersmesser' was too difficult so they just called it the Swiss Army knife," said Elsener.
9/11 spelled doom
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 September 11, 2001 attacks, adding to the pressure from competition and new multipurpose portable tools.
"September 11 was our worst moment because practically from one day to the next our output dropped 30 percent," said Elsener.
In 2005 Victorinox took over its last Swiss rival, Wenger, which was sliding into financial trouble. The brands still trade independently. More recently the 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 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," said army spokesman Christoph Brunner.
Now military green and black, the handle is 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.