A red handle, a small white cross, a blade or two, and fold-out tools
for the job— a Swiss Army Knife is an icon of utility and smart
design recognizable the world over. Invented in the 1880s, and today
still made exclusively in only two factories in Switzerland, the
pocket knives are produced in dozens of varieties at a tune of more
than 15 million per year.

This summer, on a trip to Europe, I toured Swiss Army Knife factories
in Ibach and Delemont, the idyll Swiss towns where pocket knives have
been made for more than 100 years. Amid the pounding of machines and
the bins of knife implements on the factory floor, workers assembled
knife after knife to meet the world’s demand.

It was in Ibach, in 1884, where Karl Elsener and his mother, Victoria,
opened a cutlery cooperative that would soon produce the first knives
sold to the Swiss Army. The original model, called the Soldier Knife,
was made for troops who needed a foldable tool that could open canned
food and aid in disassembling a rifle. The Soldier Knife included a
blade, a reamer, a can opener, a screwdriver, and oak handles.

Today, similar simple pocket knives roll continuously off the line at
Victorinox A.G., the company that grew out of Elsener’s small
cooperative decades back. Blades, corkscrews, files, punches, can
openers, scissors, saws, and tiny toothpicks are long-time features.

Other Victorinox knives include 21st-century touches like laser
pointers, USB storage drives, and fingerprint scanners with data
encryption built in. All the implements, from blades to data drives,
are foldable or set on springs to disappear when not in use.

In Switzerland, I traveled by train from city to city. Across the
country, in the French-speaking region of Jura, I toured Wenger S.A.,
the other half of the Swiss Army coin.

The Delemont company, founded as a cutler in the 19th century and
later modernized by businessman Theodore Wenger, shares the Swiss Army
knife trademark with Victorinox. Both companies’ knives have a similar
history, and both have been purchased in bulk quantities by the Swiss
Army since the 1890s.

Like Victorinox, the Wenger Swiss Army Knives come in dozens of types.
The company sells simple pocket knives on up to multitools like the
Mike Horn Knife, a half-pound beast with two blades and a pliers. Its
EvoGrip line has added ergonomic contours to knife handles. In 2006,
Wenger introduced the Giant, a gargantuan, nine-inch-wide “pocket
knife” with 85 implements that sells as a collector’s item for $1,400.

Wenger and Victorinox are distinct companies. But both are owned by
the Elsener family, with the great-grandchildren of Karl Elsener still
overseeing production and managing a business that employs thousands
of Swiss workers.

In Ibach, after a tour of a factory where up to 28,000 Swiss Army
Knives are made every day, I sat down with Charles Elsener, one of the
great-grandchildren of the company’s founder. He pulled a couple
knives from his pocket and started snapping blades and implements out
for show.

Charles Elsener talked about the hidden springs on which the blades
and screwdrivers snap open and closed. It was a type of this spring
mechanism, invented in the original Ibach cutlery, that made Swiss
Army Knives stand out 100 years back.

At my meeting this summer, Charles Elsener spoke about new implements,
test products, and the science of metallurgy for making a perfect
blade. From the factory below, I could hear the machines beat. It’s
been 126 years in Ibach. The Swiss Army Knife machine continues to
crank on.

—Stephen Regenold is founder and editor of www.gearjunkie.com.