Red Swiss Army knives

The 'Swiss' army knife – a patchwork product par excellence

While the Swiss army knife certainly is a genuine icon of Switzerland, the tale of the first pocket knife, which combined a German idea and a French tool with Swiss production and international distribution, must also be told. Timeless and indispensable, the Swiss army knife remains a cult object for young and old alike, for everyday adventurers and explorers in faraway lands.

Used by soldiers, campers, DIY enthusiasts, nibblers or simply anyone who thinks ahead, the Swiss army knife is the cult object par excellence in this country. And for good reason: it's not just a knife, it's a portable toolbox, which has even become a metaphor over the years. "To be a real Swiss army knife": this expression praises anything or anyone for their adaptability, efficiency or potential.

Red Swiss Army Knife

World-famous survival tool

This multi-functional tool helped a certain world-renowned adventurer get out of all kinds of tight spots, again and again. We're talking of course about Angus MacGyver here, the man who could do anything thanks to his Swiss army knife. But he's not the only one to have thrust it into the limelight around the world.

The Swiss tool also appeared in Lethal Weapon 3 and The Fantastic Four, as well as in the hands of Dana Scully in the X-Files series and in those of Matt Damon in The Martian. The latter certainly made a good choice, given that the Swiss army knife has been part of NASA astronauts' survival kit since 1992.

Just as it is part of the outfitting of the Dutch, German, Malaysian, and of course Swiss armies. In 1880, the Swiss Armed Forces ordered a folding knife that allowed soldiers to eat and to dismantle their service rifle. Ten years later, the Swiss military opted for the 1890 model, which included a knife, a screwdriver, a reamer and a can opener.

But the first 15,000 ones were produced in Germany, where John S. Holler had invented history's first multipurpose knife, consisting of a hundred or so tools including a cigar cutter, a razor and a mini-shovel.

 En 1880, John S. Holler a créé ce couteau multifonctions en Allemagne. ©
 In 1880, John S. Holler invented this multipurpose knife in Germany. © 

Simple tools or art? 

It was not until 1896 that the Schwyz surgical instruments manufacturer Karl Elsener developed his first folding officer's knife, to which he added a second blade and a corkscrew produced in France. Elsener founded Victorinox, named after his late mother Victoria and the stainless steel in use since 1921. He continuously expanded his product range – a quest that continues to this day and has given rise to such bizarre inventions as the Wenger 16999 model – of a competitor company bought by Victorinox in 2005 – which weighs almost 1.4 kg. A collector's item, the Wenger is sought after by many a multipurpose-knife lover.

© Victorinox
© Victorinox


You don't need to be a professional to know that among all the multipurpose knives on the market, the Swiss army knife – SAK, for those in the know – remains a must-have. Embossed with its white cross logo, it has become a work of art and is on display in MoMA in New York, the Design Museum in London and in the Neue Sammlung in Munich.


Article originally published in Le Temps by Chams Iaz, 6 August 2020