Iconic Design: Swiss Army Knife

The Swiss Army Knife was an invention of the 19th century, but it only gained a wider audience after World War II, when PX stores of the United States Army started selling it. They also gave it its name. Saying goes in Switzerland that you are not truly Swiss if you don’t have a Swiss Army Knife with you at all times. 



In 1884, Karl Elsener opened a knife manufacture in Ibach (part of the town of Schwyz) after having learned the trade in Paris and Tuttlingen, Germany. In 1891, he developed together with other Swiss manufacturers the Swiss Soldier’s Knife. The development followed a request by the Swiss Federal Government to supply the army. The specification for that knife had been to combine an eating utensil with emergency tools that could be used in combat conditions. 


The following year, most Swiss manufactures closed shop as they could not compete with the prices set by the knife manufactures in Solingen, Germany. Elsener was barely able to scrape through and averted falling into administration thanks to money from his family and a generous write-off by his creditors. In 1897, he was able to deposit the patent for the Swiss Officers and Sports Knife which became a resounding success enabling him to repay all his creditors with interest including the written-off amounts. 


In 1908, the Federal Government started to split its orders for army knives between Elsener (based in the German speaking part of Switzerland) and Wenger (based in the French speaking part) in the interest of national unity. 


When Karl Elsener's mother Victoria died in 1909, he started using her name as a brand for his products together with the Swiss cross in a shield. The introduction of stainless steel was a major turning point for knife producers around the globe. In 1921, Elsener’s son and successor combined his grandmother’s name Victoria with inox (from French inoxydable) to spell out the new brand name of Victorinox. 


After World War II, PX stores of the US Army started selling Victorinox knives as ‘Swiss Army Knives’. The term is now generally used in English. It also spelled out the beginning of a craze going global. Victorinox and Wenger reached an agreement whereby Victorinox called its knives ‘Original Swiss Army Knife’ while Wenger used ‘Genuine Swiss Army Knife’. A devolved type of pocket knife, Victorinox’s Master Craftsman Swiss Army Knife, became part of the standard equipment of Space Shuttle crew members. 


In 1978, the hitherto unlimited company owned by the Elsener family was converted into a limited company under the name of Victorinox. 75 percent of its share capital is held by a company trust to guarantee the future independence of the company and to safeguard jobs; a further 15 percent are held by the Carl and Elise Elsener-Gut Charity Trust. 


In 2005, Wenger was in financial trouble and was under threat of administration. Victorinox decided that this would be detrimental to the Swiss interests in the market and bought the company. The companies continue to market under their own names, though. Currently, Victoria’s great-great-grandson Carl Elsener Jr. is running the company. 


Victorinox and Wenger both have constantly kept at developing the Swiss Army Knife even further. The newest knives have laser pointer, fingerprint reader, and Bluetooth module integrated into the model.


Further reading
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