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Swiss Army Knife: A Factory Tour of Victorinox

Juxtapoz // Thursday, 25 Jul 2013
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There are few people that I would get up at 4am for, let alone travel from London to Zurich and back in a day for. But for my old friends at Juxtapoz, and for one of the world’s most iconic design companies – Victorinox, I definitely made that exception. Everyone I know wanted to accompany me on the trip and I enjoyed watching my friend’s faces flush with excitement and jealousy, listening to them recount childhood memories of their fathers and grandfathers owning a Victorinox Swiss Army knife.

Victorinox headquarters is located in the beautiful Ibach- Schwyz, at the foot of the two snow-dusted Mythen peaks. My host Mr. Urs Wyss greeted me at Schwyz train station with a big smile and a warm handshake, and we drove the short distance to the factory. I spent the next five hours learning about the history, design, process, and future of the legendary company. Victorinox has 900 employees and is the largest cutlery factory in Europe. Everyone stopped to greet me and most people, including Urs, have been working at the family-owned company for many years, with fourth generation CEO, Carl Elsener at the helm.

 

The key to the success and reputation of Victorinox lies in its history. There has been very little change over the course of over 100 years. They don’t need to. They have not strayed from their core principles and design, and even though they have innovated and diversified, it all works with the company’s story. In 1884, master cutter Karl Elsener and his mother founded the Swiss Cutlers' Association to help create jobs and alleviate the poverty and unemployment that was occurring in Switzerland at the time. The association’s objective was to produce knives for the soldiers of the Swiss Army. They delivered the first product in 1891: A knife comprised of a large blade, screwdriver, can opener and reamer. The soldier’s knife was robust but very heavy, so Karl went on to develop a knife for officers that was much lighter and had six tools, including an additional small blade and corkscrew.

The market is flooded with imitations Urs tells me while pulling out a drawer full of copycat knives of various sizes, shades of red, and with all sorts of signs and symbols, to illustrate the crude workmanship and the scale of the problem. The reason they thrive is their low price point, he says. Granted, Victorinox knives are not cheap. But they are not throwaway gadgets; they are heirlooms that often get passed down from generation to generation. More importantly, the price is relative to the workmanship and finish that goes into each product. The Swiss Champ, for example, is the flagship of the series with 33 features. It consists of 64 individual parts and goes through more than 450 steps in the manufacturing process.

Victorinox is part of the official equipment of space shuttle crews; US presidents since Lydon B. Johnson have presented guests to the White House with Victorinox pocketknives, and, since 1977, the Museum of Modern Art in New York houses a Swiss officer's knife in their Architecture and Design Department collection. But most significantly, the Swiss Army Knife has been a fixture in the artist’s toolbox for over 100 years. Simplicity and function never go out of style.

Story and photos by Helen Soteriou for Juxtapoz. The feature was printed in the August 2013 issue of Juxtapoz.

For more information, please visit Victorinox.com/CH

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