There are certain objects that rise above the regular and become icons–recognisable for their simplicity of design, unique looks and functions, and reliable quality. Victorinox's original Swiss Army Knife (SAK) is one tool with worldwide recognition and a global icon of reliability and functionality. The Swiss village of Schwyz nestled under the mountains, otherwise not known for metalwork or cutlery making, is where founder Karl Elsener started his company more than a century and a quarter ago. Still settled at the same location, today's modern factory produces cutlery, tools and myriad versions of the Swiss Army Knife. The year 2022 marks an iconic landmark for the brand as they celebrate 125 years of the Swiss Army Knife that was born in 1897 and has been a global icon for everyday adventure.
A small group of six, including me, assembled at the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, Mumbai to ring in the 125th-year celebrations of a Swiss icon, the Swiss Army knife along with the Victorinox CEO Carl Elsener. To mark the momentous occasion, Victorinox launched a limited-edition replica knife based on the original Officer’s and Sports Knife.
Legacy behind the legend
It was in 1897 when Karl Elsener patented the original Officer’s and Sports Knife, later known as the Swiss Army knife. Victorinox is now a well-diversified company manufacturing and marketing the Swiss Army knives, household and professional knives, watches, travel gear and fragrances.
A fourth-generation family-run company with a turnover of over CHF 400 million and employing 2,100 people, Victorinox is headquartered at Ibach, in the German-speaking canton of Schwyz. It is the same place where Karl Elsener had set up his cutlery workshop in 1884, and later invented the legendary "Original Swiss Army Knife".
They produce an impressive 10 million Swiss Army knives per year and sell more than 400 different models of the icon, from one function (Swiss Army 1) up to 73 functions (Swiss Champ XXL), from the lightest Swiss Army knife weighing 17 gm (Escort) to the heaviest at 353 gm (Swiss Champ XXL).
Making of the replica
Individually numbered and engraved with the year 1897, the anniversary knife, The Replica 1897, is limited to 9,999 pieces only. The knife takes inspiration from the original on the outside but is fitted with the latest technology on the inside. However, it wasn’t easy to recreate the icon. After a great deal of research from old books and other documents, old templates and sketches, the Victorinox team finally recreated the Replica 1897 out of 18 separate pieces. Distinctive features of the Replica 1897 include the style of the pointy small blade, the original shape of the corkscrew, an awl perfectly integrated into the body of the pocket knife and a can opener with a unique technique.
Victorinox sells its products through company flagship stores and a network of subsidiaries and distributors in more than 120 countries. Though pocket knives still account for 36% of global sales, 17% comes from travel gear, 10% from watches and 34% from household and professional knives. In India, however, travel gear and watches sell more than the global average.
In an exclusive conversation, Carl Elsener, chats with Zee Zest about the company’s history and the vision he has for its growth in the future. Edited Excerpts:
1. How did the name change from Swiss Officer’s and Sports knife to Swiss Army knife?
My great-grandfather started delivering the Soldier Knife to the Swiss Army in 1891. The knives were large and heavy, so he developed a smaller and more elegant knife with many more functions and features in 1897. He called it the Swiss Officer’s and Sports Knife because he thought the officers should have a more elegant and versatile knife than the soldiers.
During the Second World War, they delivered the red little knife in large quantities to the US Army. They liked it very much but found the name too long and so they called it the Swiss Army knife. Then we took the same name and extended it to all English-speaking countries.
2. What have been some of the key milestones of the Swiss knife?
The most important milestone is the birth of the Swiss Army knife in 1897. Then we kept adding functions through the years. We have now added features like hoof cleaners for horse riders and e-memory sticks for laptops. Another key milestone is the Second World War when we could supply knives in large quantities to the US soldiers stationed in Europe. They took it back to the USA and it became the largest market for us. Another milestone is when the TV series, MacGyver, was released, where the agent would always solve a problem with the little red knife. We were not aware of it in the beginning but realised later when we saw sales surge by 25-30%. As you are aware, the little red Swiss Army knife is omnipresent and is a part of all space missions.
3. What made Victorinox start a watch collection?
For a century, Victorinox has been making pocket knives and household knives. We were concerned to see our products getting copied in Asia. Though quality is always lower, we realisa ed even if the quality went up, the price would still remain lower than being manufactured in Switzerland. We then asked ourselves how to still manufacture in Switzerland and also be a global brand. The conclusion was we needed to make our brand more visible.
The Swiss Army knife, though very popular, most of the time remains hidden in your pocket. You don’t see the product. At the same time, we were receiving requests from our customers who were satisfied with the quality and reliability of our knives and wanted to know if we had other products that could offer the same value. We then went to our consumers and got a big list of products they wanted, which included products for travelling outdoors and watches.
So in 1989, we started collaborating with a Swiss watch manufacturer and selling our watches. We were successful almost immediately. Consumers trusted us with our watches the way they had trusted our little red knife. Seeing our success, we developed in-house competence based at Delemont where we now manufacture our own Victorinox and Wenger watches.
4. Tell us about the branding shift from Victorinox Swiss Army to Victorinox for your watches.
We started selling watches in the US market where the Swiss Army knife was more important than Victorinox for historical reasons. But in the rest of the markets like Europe, South America and Asia, it’s the other way around. So, we used the branding of Victorinox Swiss Army for these markets. That made life a bit complicated for us. Now, we have decided to sell all our products in the global markets under the brand name Victorinox.
5. As a multi-category, well-diversified company, which products are you bullish on now?
All product categories are important to us and all products make our brand more visible. While the flagship Swiss Army knife now accounts for the bulk of our business, the household and professional knife category has done very well in the recent past, and also was least affected during the Covid-19 crisis. People were at home and cooked more in their kitchens and that helped.
Victorinox watches have also been a stable category in the past few years, however, the travel gear category which showed strong growth pre-Covid was affected the most due to the pandemic. The fragrance category that accounts for 3% of the business came with our acquisition of Wenger in 2005.
Wenger has a rich century-old history, quite like Victorinox. But something we had and they didn’t was reserves. As a family, we have seen many crises — from World Wars to the Great Depression of the ’30s to the Oil Crisis to 9/11. We believe one must build reserves when the going is good to overcome challenges during the bad times. Wenger fell into huge debts post 9/11 and we bought them over. They had a small fragrance business that was doing well in North America. This is how we added fragrance to our collection. We are confident of all categories doing well but our focus is clearly on travel and outdoor, kitchen and cutting.
Key Highlights of the Swiss Army knife
Tradition: In 1897, the Swiss Army Knife (SAK) is patented
Innovation: More than 400 different models of the Swiss Army knife and other tools
Quality: Comes with lifetime warranty against any defects in material and workmanship
Space: Astronaut Chris Hadfield's quote "Never leave the planet without one" sums up the usefulness of the SAK in space missions
Numbers: in 2017, Victorinox produced the 500 millionth SAK and launched a special edition for employees only
Record: Fastest selling out model was the Hunter Pro Damast Limited Edition in 2020, in 50 minutes online
Bestseller: The Classic Pocket Knife is the most-sold model ever
Moon landing: The demand for 1969 pieces to commemorate 50 years since the moon landing caused the website to crash