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Small wonder

The Swiss army knife reached a count of 500 million knives this year. Carl Elsener, CEO of Victorinox, unpacks the little pocket knife

Carl Elsener, CEO of Victorinox. Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint
Carl Elsener, CEO of Victorinox. Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint

It is one of those historical products born out of war. In 1890, when the Swiss army decided to give knives to every soldier, an entrepreneurial knife-maker, Karl Elsener, brought together all the knife-makers of his neighbourhood and established the Swiss Cutlery Association. Together, they were able to respond to the rather large order of knives by the army.

Karl Elsener went on to perfect his design, patenting it in 1897 as the Swiss Officer’s and Sports Knife. It would go on to acquire a cult following thanks to the American army. During World War II, the US army set up special stores for soldiers to buy good European products at lower prices. Elsener’s knife landed up there and became a favourite among American soldiers, who bought them as tokens of memory. They called it the Swiss army knife and the name stuck.

Today the 133-year-old brand has four flagship stores and 70 multi-brand stores worldwide. It opened in India 10 years ago, and, last month, celebrated another milestone: 500 million knives made till date.

Lounge met Carl Elsener, the current chief executive officer of Victorinox and the grandson of the founder, when he visited India in November. Elsener, who is based in the company headquarters of Ibach, Switzerland, speaks about their famous product, and suggests what could be the right knife for you. Edited excerpts:

There are so many functions folded into the little pocket knife—paper cutter, scissors, toothpick, cork opener, nail file, among others. How did these evolve?

In the beginning, it was a spartan model, which had only two springs and nine different tools. Over the years, the founder added scissors, a wood saw, a metal file, the Philips screwdriver, a magnifying glass, more pairs of pliers. One of the latest Swiss army knives has an LED light, a ballpoint pen, a USB memory stick. What we were always good at was integrating a lot of features. The knife is very small, but it’s a toolbox, it’s reliable in many different circumstances.

Some features have been ideas and inspiration from end-consumers. We get letters where people give us suggestions. And some features go undiscovered also. Many people don’t know there’s a pin inside the corkscrew (in some models). When you’re hiking or just outdoors, and get a tiny wood splinter, this pin helps you to gently peel a bit of your skin and then pull the splinter out with a tweezer.

How has the essential design changed from the first model?

The first model from 1897 looked very similar. The handles, however, were not made of plastic, because there was no injection-moulding then. Then it was made in a fibre material in a brown red colour. Also, we used to make it in carbon steel, since there was no stainless steel. In 1921, stainless steel was introduced and Victorinox began to invest in and manufacture stainless steel.

Victorinox has an extensive sustainability plan.

Our company won a Swiss environment award a few years ago. When you make knives, you have a lot of grinding processes, which heats a lot of water. We have a system to use that heat and hence avoid using mineral oil. We use the heat energy that comes from manufacturing to heat the factory, plus 120 apartments.

You’ve been in India for 10 years. How does Victorinox perform in this market vis-à-vis others?

It’s interesting that in all markets in the world—the American and European essentially, which are mature markets—the Swiss army knife is the top seller. Forty per cent of the sales of the company are of the Swiss army knife. But in India, up until a year ago, watches were a best-seller. Today, travel gear is just about to take over. We think it’s because in India, outdoor activities are not as popular. People go to foreign countries for outdoor adventures. Possibly the climate is too hot here. Also, in India, Do It Yourself is not so popular. You call other people to fix little things. In Germany and Switzerland, if there’s a screw loose in the door, you just take a knife and fix it. It’s a different culture.

Are there any larger trends that inform how you diversify?

Cooking and travelling are two growing trends all over the world, and we’re focusing on those areas. Household knives are a big favourite. Design has become very important to everyone.

What knife do you carry?

I carry the Traveller. It has a large blade, small blade, screwdriver, can opener, small screwdriver, scissors. The particular model has a digital watch and an alarm.

I carry this knife wherever I go, for travelling and hiking. I went to Kilimanjaro with my family, the knife was indispensable. The knife showed us the altitude, temperature, how much further we have to go, it has a barometer and a timer.

Which one would you suggest for a woman?

I would personally recommend one of our classic knives from the signature line called the Mini Champ. It has a little letter opener, nail filer, cap lifter with a little Philips screwdriver, an orange peeler, a special blade with a practical pair of scissors, a cuticle pusher. But what I love most about this model is its ballpoint pen with an LED light right on top of it. When you have a genius idea in the middle of the night, and want to scribble it down, you push on the cross and shield (the logo button) and the light will come on a spot exactly where you write.

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