Swiss Army knife loses its signature blade

It still looks sharp, but the blade has gotten some shade

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Just as there are public transit lost-and-found bureaux stuffed to the gills with furled, frayed and forlorn umbrellas, there must somewhere in aviation world be an office of orphaned pocket knives, an unfolding emporium of sharps confiscated by post-9/11 airport wand-wavers.

And while it’s perhaps no great tragedy to have Uncle Buck’s Buck knife lifted off one’s person, it’s quite another to relinquish one’s cherished Swiss Army knife in the name of safer air travel. For that wondrously simple scarlet tool is as much objet d’art as fish-gutter, as much at home in the catalogue of influential design as it is in the kit bag of the Alpine infantryman.

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Made to be easily transportable, it is, alas, now facing a new threat to its existence, and the clue is in the name: knife. Outside the United States and other countries with easy access to guns, knives are the weapon of choice. In the U.K., grappling with an epidemic of fatal stabbings, it is illegal to carry a folding blade longer than three inches (7.62cm).

Increasingly concerned about the rise of such knife-carrying curbs, manufacturer Victorinox has announced it will for the first time be creating a product without its most talismanic element, the cutting tool.

Goodbye, blades…hello, extra corkscrew?

Carl Elsener, the fourth-generation chief executive of the family-run firm, said the time had come to end more than a century of tradition. “In some markets, the blade creates an image of a weapon,” he said. “I have in mind creating a tool that would be useful for cyclists. Cyclists have a need for a tool but not necessarily a blade.”

Company executives have assured the world’s boy scouts, hikers, urban adventurers and those “best-prepared through smart and masterful solutions for any life situation” that it will continue making its totemic red-handled tools with blades — they may just be harder to find.

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To be sure, there are plenty of other pocket knives on the market, but few have transcended the utilitarian with quite the panache of the Swiss Army knife. It perhaps may never have done so given its unwieldy original moniker — the Schweizer Offiziermesser.

But let’s back up: The knife is and always will be a symbol of Switzerland, its origins deeply rooted not in today’s design esthetics but in the practical and plodding needs of 19th century foot soldiers craving a lightweight gizmo for repairing their rifles, cracking open canned rations, and, occasionally, slicing things wide open.

Enter Swiss inventor Karl Elsener. Responding to a call for a multi-purpose tool made on home soil (rather than outsourced to Germany), Elsener set to work and had his first version in the hands of military officers by 1891. Six years later, in 1897, a second smaller knife was created for wider release.

Victorinox, the name of the manufacturer, is a portmanteau of “Victoria” — Elsener’s beloved mother, who died in 1909 — and “inox,” the shortened French term for stainless steel.

It was an immediate success, strengthened by the addition in 1897 of a corkscrew. This was widely seen as a sop to the officer class, who might need recourse to a bottle of vino to take the edge off defeat and celebrate conquest. The truth was rather more mundane: personal hygiene items and medications were often sealed in corked bottles.

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Structurally, the rust-resistant knives have changed little in 130-odd years, their aluminum separators and hidden springs as highly prized today as when they were first unveiled to the public.

Now hailed as shorthand for Swiss culture, Elsener’s baby carved a place in global popular imagination thanks to the Yanks, who took to the hardy tools in great number during the Second World War. Struggling with the Swiss pronunciation, they called them simply the “Swiss army knife” — and thus was born one of Switzerland’s most curious but coveted exports.

Curiouser still: Switzerland is famously a non-aligned country. So how did a knife become as renowned as the cuckoo clock and the cowbell? Neutral it may be, but the Alpine nation has a large army thanks to compulsory national service — and all its personnel are kitted out with pocket knives. From 1908, two suppliers competed for contracts — Victorinox and Wenger — but the former ultimately prevailed, buying out its rival in 2005.

Despite fears over knife crime, it is the shadow of the U.S. terror attacks in 2001 that hangs most ominously over the continued viability of Victorinox. Once a brisk seller at airport duty-free shops, the Swiss Army multi-tool became penknife non grata almost overnight after 9/11.

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“Our company has never been as hard hit as it was by the Sept. 11 terror attacks,” CEO Carl Elsener conceded in 2013. “We lost over 40 per cent of our business. Airports sent vast quantities of the knife back to us.”

Yet the family-owned enterprise has survived by diversifying, with everything from luggage to watches and fragrances — not to mention a few oddball forays into knife-shaped chocolate bars and blades with a built-in MP3 player, among others.

From its headquarters in the Swiss town of Ibach — and having reportedly never laid off a single employee — Victorinox pumps out more than 30,000 pocket knives each day, about 10 million a year, with 90 per cent destined for export to more than 100 countries.

And beyond. Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield famously immortalized the cross-and-shield companions in his book, An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth. Describing how he used his Swiss Army knife to “break into” the Russian Mir space station, he wrote: “Never leave the planet without one.”

It’s sad such a cutting-edge product, recognized the world over for its style and simplicity, should be shorn of its, er, cutting edge. After all, where would MacGyver, that make-do-and-mend hero of 1980s television, have been without his trusty pocket blade? Popping open another bottle of bubbly with the corkscrew, presumably.

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