Karl Elsener: The Inventor Behind the Iconic Swiss Army Knife

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Read more about Karl Elsener, the inventor behind the iconic Swiss Army Knife used worldwide.
Birthplace: Switzerland
Industry: Entrepreneurship
Legacy: Inventor of Swiss Army Knife and Founder of Victorinox

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Brian Hadi Attarbashi
Updated on:
Aug 08, 2022
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Passion for Excellent Craftsmanship

Anyone who watched the beloved TV series McGyver knows he is never without the swiss knife.

Ask any man if he is allowed one material possession he can bring with him anywhere; I would bet the swiss army knife will, hands down, be on top of the list.

To own a swiss army knife is a dream of any man and woman, for that matter. The swiss knife is among the favorite items for gifts and the favored things for practical use and survival.

People appreciate the value of this invention, and so many fascinating and endearing stories are attached to the Swiss Army Knife. Very few people have an enormous impact and legacy that's forever etched in people's lives worldwide, especially enthusiasts and collectors.

Through his knife invention, Karl Elsener did just that. Let us relive the life of this gentleman whose business acuity is equaled by his strength of character and passion for excellent craftsmanship.

Family and Education

Karl Elsener was born on October 9, 1860, in Switzerland. He was in one of a long line of haberdashers in Zug, Switzerland, fathered by Balthasar Elsener (born Ott), and was raised by his doting and devoted mother, Victoria Elsener. Victoria Elsener was Karl’s rock, moral and financial supporter.

Karl Elsener

Karl Elsener was fascinated by cutleries. Rather than wearing hats, Karl studied knife-making and apprenticed in Paris and Tuttlingen, Germany, where he specialized in surgical quality equipment and razors.

Early Career

On January 1, 1884, Elsener began producing knives south of Geneva in the rural canton of Schwyz, the birthplace of the Swiss Confederation. Karl spent his years as a journeyman and finally settled in Ibach, Switzerland, to open a workshop for knives and a factory for surgical instruments.

Elsener's initial workshop was in an old mill on the Tobelach River (Tobel Stream). The original Swiss Army knives were mass-produced replicas of pocket knives in Soligen, Germany.

In 1891, Karl Elsener learned that the Swiss army had decided to distribute knives to its soldiers. At that time, no Swiss company had the production capacity to supply the blades, so the initial order for 15,000 knives was filled by the German knife manufacturer Wester & Co. from Solingen, Germany.

Quick Facts about the Swiss Army Knife

Association of Swiss Cutlers

Karl Elsener then established the Association of Swiss Cutlers, which consisted of many small workshops. As a result, he bagged his  First Contract With the Swiss Army and delivered his primary supply of knives that could open canned food and assemble, disassemble, and maintain their rifles.‍

This original Swiss Officer's and Sports Knife was patented in 1897. Today, the Swiss Army Knife is known all over the world.

Association of Swiss Cutlers

Victorinox

The business began utilizing a Swiss White Cross to distinguish its items in 1909. Elsener labeled the line with the trademark Victoria in honor of his mother, who died the same year.

In 1921, the -inox suffix was added as an identifier for the new stainless steel used in manufacturing blades. In the 1920s, only Victorinox and Wenger were among the artisans selling pocket knives to the Swiss Army.

Automation

Carl Elsener II, Karl's son, introduced automation and Brown Boveri was commissioned in 1931 to build the world's first all-electric hardening facility at Ibach. This ensures that all knives are consistent of excellent quality.

The Victoria Factory in Switzerland

The Swiss Army sought to purchase a new folding pocket knife for their soldiers in the late 1880s. This knife was designed for army use in opening canned food and maintaining the Schmidt–Rubin, a Swiss military weapon requiring a screwdriver for construction and disassembly. After World War II, US soldiers stationed in Europe bought it in massive quantities, a popular souvenir to carry home. 

Original versus Genuine

From 1908 through 2005, Wenger was in charge of supplying knives to the Swiss Armed Forces. A settlement between the two businesses stipulated that Victorinox's knives would be marketed as "Original Swiss Army Knives," while Wenger's would be marketed as "Genuine Swiss Army Knives."

Victorinox purchased Wenger in 2005. Knives explicitly designed for the army (rather than the generic "Swiss Army" brand) were known as Soldatenmesser or soldier knives. These were manufactured in five generations, identified by different years with minor variants within each generation introduced as:

  • Model 1890
  • Model 1908
  • Model 1951
  • Model 1961
  • Model 08

Wester & Co, Solingen initially manufactured Model 1890, and Elsenser competed with the Solingen manufacturer.

A few companies in Germany and Switzerland also produced the Model 1908 and Model 1951. Victorinox and Wenger jointly made Model 1961, and Victorinox exclusively had Model 08 after the acquisition of Wenger.

The Business Empire‍

Carl Elsener was Karl Elsener's (1860-1918) grandson and Carl Elsener's (1860-1918) son (1886-1950). Karl Elsener established a knife and surgical equipment business in Ibach, from which the Victorinox knife company developed.

Victorinox, Ibach Switzerland

Carl Elsener II founded the company alongside his father and brother Eduard Elsener (b. 1926). Carl Elsener Sr. took control after his father, Elsener II, died in 1950. The Swiss Army Knife is now recognized as one of his works.

Victorinox in North America

In 1972, Forschner Butcher Scale Company of New Britain, Connecticut, became Victorinox's exclusive distributor in the United States.

In 1981, the company went public, and Victorinox President Charles Elsener purchased a significant portion of the company's stock. The company was later renamed the Forschner Group, Inc. in 1983.

Forschner registered the Swiss Army moniker as a trademark in the United States during the 1980’s. Precise Imports Corp., a US and Canadian importer of Wenger knives, sued in 1992, and Forschner kept the rights to use the brand on compasses, clocks, and sunglasses, but Precise may advertise other non-knife goods. Forschner later changed its name to Swiss Army Brands, Inc. in the mid-1990s (SABI).

After teaming up in 2001, Victorinox and SABI formed the multinational watch firm Victorinox Swiss Army Watch AG. Victorinox bought all remaining shares of SABI in August 2002 to secure possession of the Swiss Army trademark. Previously, SABI sold the Swiss Army branded watch in North America and, under license, the Victorinox branded watch outside North America. Furthermore, the merged Victorinox Swiss Army brand was after that offered internationally.

Wenger Acquisition

On April 26, 2005, Victorinox announced the acquisition of Wenger, the other official provider of the Swiss Army knife, intending to keep both trademarks intact.

In 2006, 900 people were working at the company. It produced around 34,000 Swiss Army knives, 38,000 multi-tools, and 30,000 home, kitchen, and knives daily. Approximately 90% of its output is exported to more than 100 nations.

Victorinox claims to have never had to lay off an employee. To avoid this, they lay away earnings during boom years to supplement downturns and temporarily contract personnel to other firms as outsourced labor during downturns.

Victorinox stated on January 30, 2013, that it would unite Wenger's knife product lines with the Victorinox brand to boost its international competitive position.

Bushcraft Usage

Around 2005, the Bushcraft community adopted The Farmer model as their trademark folding knife.

‍Legacy: Victorinox Company

Karl Elsener's Swiss Army Knife is among the few things associated with Switzerland, together with its banking industry, alps, and watches. No traveler can afford to leave the country without buying one.

In 1897, Karl Elsener improved his folding multi-use knife and came up with the Swiss Officer's and Sports Knife – now the iconic Swiss Army Knife.

Karl Elsener's Swiss Army Knife

This builds the foundation for a flourishing business enterprise that not only holds its own on the world stage but dominates and comes out the best. From that time on, Karl's spirit of solidarity, love for his roots in his region, and a solid commitment to quality and innovation shaped what was to become the Victorinox company.‍

Luggage and Clothing

Luggage and Clothing

Victorinox purchased the TRG Group from Centric Group in 2014. TRG Group was the Victorinox licensee for baggage and travel-related items for numerous years. Victorinox absorbed TRG Group as the Victorinox Travel Gear subsidiary.

Victorinox shut the clothing department in 2017 to focus on other key product lines.

Debuting at New York Fashion Week

Victorinox debuted its capsule collection Remade in Switzerland by UK fashion designer Christopher Raeburn during New York Fashion Week.

Christopher Raeburn

The tiny collection of only eight pieces is made from repurposed Swiss military textiles such as sleeping bags, parachutes, blankets, and wool coats, some of which are over 60 years old.

sleeping bags, parachutes, blankets, and wool coats

Each item is a 100-piece limited edition including Victorinox’s winter coat, featuring Raeburn's savage twist on the traditional Swiss army knife.

Swiss Army Knives

Victorinox's most well-known product is the Swiss Army knife. Karl Elsener's knife has become synonymous with inventiveness, versatility, quality, and durability. It's been a favorite for people of action and the outdoorsy types since its inception. There will never be any other knife with more cultural and global significance than Karl's Swiss Army Knife.

Swiss Army Knives

Victorinox, the original exclusive supplier, has split the contract with Wenger since 1908. Victorinox was granted the right to market as the Early Swiss Army Knife, while Wenger claimed the title of Genuine Swiss Army Knife as part of a settlement between the two companies. Victorinox purchased Wenger in 2005. Watch this video to learn how is a Swiss Army Knife is made.

Outside of the army, Swiss Army knives are commonly used (and civil sales represent most of the turnover]). They are multi-functional tools, and different sizes and functional combinations are made. A Victorinox knife is primary equipment for NASA astronauts. Victorinox knives have also been transported to the Arctic and Mount Everest.

A previous release of the "SwissChamp" in 1986, The "Champion," Victorinox's model flagship, is currently in the New York Museum of Modern Art's Permanent Design Collection.

SwissCard

The SwissCard is about the size of a business card.

It comes with a short non-folding knife, a small pair of scissors, a small file with a screwdriver point, tweezers, a slim ballpoint pen, a plastic toothpick, and a straight pin, all housed in a hard plastic case that measures 82 54.5 x 4.5 mm and has an inch ruler on one side and metric measurements on the other.

Victorinox manufactures three varieties of SwissCards: Classic, Quattro, and Lite. The number of functions provided by each of the three types varies, ranging from 10 (Classic) to 13. (Quattro and Lite).

Cutlery

Cutlery

Victorinox has long manufactured numerous kitchen cutlery under their own and the Forschner brand names. Victorinox dropped the Forschner label in 2011 and now sells identical knives under the Victorinox brand.

Victorinox produces a variety of kitchen and professional food preparation knives. They sell chef's, carving, filleting, deboning, paring, and specialist tools like a cheese knife. Victorinox versions are available with molded plastic, wooden, or riveted handles.

With the same exacting quality as that of the Swiss Army Knife and excellent designs, Victorinox's line of cutleries earned its reputation in kitchens worldwide.‍

Most types have stamped blades; however, one series has a forged bolster. They also lack a ricasso, a flat part at the intersection of the blade edge and the heel. The majority of models have stainless steel blades. Ceramic blades are offered in one kind.

Bayonets

Victorinox also manufactures the Sturmgewehr 90 bayonet, used with the Swiss Sturmgewehr 90 assault rifle. The entire length of the bayonet is 310 mm, and the muzzle ring diameter is 22 mm. The 177 mm long blade has a single edge and is not fuller. Both Wenger and Victorinox made the bayonets solely for the Swiss Army until the two businesses combined.

Timepieces

Timepieces

Victorinox joined the timepiece market in the United States in 1989 under the brand name "Swiss Army." Victorinox's watches display impressive aesthetics, accuracy, and mechanical excellence. It is designed and built to get the attention of even the pickiest watch aficionados. This is the reason why Victorinix's watch line achieve tremendous success.

Victorinox offers various watches ranging from luxury dress watches to rugged dive watches. Victorinox has come a long way from the first swiss army knife they made. The watches feature quartz and mechanical movements with several collections available, including Infantry, Divemaster, Airboss, and I.N.O.X. The pieces are made in Switzerland.

Victorinox Timeline

1909‍

In loving memory of his mother, Elsener named his company Victoria and registered the brand name and emblem with cross and shield as the trademark.‍

1921 Inox‍

The arrival of steel on the industrial scene was a significant event in the cutlery industry. Thus Karl combined the name of his mother Victoria and inox (stainless steel) to rename his company Victorinox.‍

1945 Conquering America‍

During world war II, Kelsener's knife got its American name. It's been said that the American G.I.s who are so fond of knives couldn't pronounce the German word "offiziersmesser," so they started calling it by its literal English translation, the Swiss Army Knife.

The Swiss Army Knife's entrance to America was quick. American soldiers going home bought them for gifts and personal use, spreading its popularity to the American continent and prompting mass orders to be shipped to the USA.‍

1985 

The hit television series MacGyver would see the series hero using the knife to escape dangerous situations and designing solutions to unsolvable problems with the aid of the Swiss Army Knife. The Swiss army knife's popularity soared, and the business empire became more extensive.

Victorinox, the maker of Swiss Army Knife since 1897, upholds the company's commitment to Swiss precision and a strong focus on creativity and quality and now operates in 120 countries worldwide.

Victorinox Timeline

Fun Fact:

Wenger 16999 Swiss Army Knife

There is nothing quite like the Wenger 16999 Swiss Army Knife, which features 87 fixtures and 141 functions!

In 2007, Victorinox reached the 500-millionth mark of manufacturing the “Original Swiss Army Knife.”

Today, Victorinox's brand covers five product categories. The iconic Swiss Army Knives, Swiss precision and luxury watches, durable travel gears, and nostalgic fragrances.‍ The Swiss Army Knives History is a rich heritage and a deep generational legacy to tell.

Philanthropy

Carl and Elise Elsener Gut Foundation was established in 1994 to support national and international humanitarian causes.

Carl and Elise Elsener

Carl Elsener Sr.

Being Karl Elsener’s grandson, it is not a surprise that he may become the next to lead the company.

Carl Elsener Sr.

Under his leadership, Carl Elsener Sr. made the Messerfabrik, the largest company in the canton of Schwyz. When Elsener Sr. joined the company in 1938, the company employed only 80 people during this time. At the time of Carl Elsener Sr.’s death, the company grew to over a thousand employees.

Elsener is portrayed as a boss who could run practically all the machinery himself, wore the "Lismerli" or blue work coat, and rode a bicycle to the factory. He'd never had an automobile. He felt well enough to work an 80-hour week a few years before his death. He was well-loved by his employees, friends, and family.

Carl Elsener Jr.

Carl Elsener Jr. is the great-grandson of Karl Elsener. Since 2007, Elsener Jr. has led the company as CEO and Chairman of the Board of Directors.

Carl Elsener Jr.

In October 2000, Elsner Sr. established the Victorinox Foundation with his brother Eduard Elsener and his son Carl Elsener Jr. as a succession solution to assure the company's continuous survival and future development. The Foundation owns 75% of Victorinox AG, with the remaining 15% owned by the non-profit Carl and Elise Elsener-Gut Foundation. The Elsener family controls 10% of the company.

Carl Elsener Jr. started managing the company in 2007 when his father, Carl Elsener Sr., passed away.

Key Takeaway

The life of Karl Elsener is the epitome of creativity, innovation, and dedication to quality.

It echoes through his legacy, and it is seen in his future generations. These commendable characters can propel a business forward to unimaginable heights even beyond one’s lifetime.

This is among the most powerful lessons we can learn from the extraordinary business acumen and character of Karl Elsener. Competition in the business world today is aggressive and fierce; devotion to continuous improvement and unrelenting product and service excellence can make a difference.

We must not rest on our conceived laurels but remain truthful about what makes our business thrive.

We can imitate Karl Elsener by observing how current Victorinox CEO Carl Elsener Jr. saw the rich heritage and legacy he is carrying now. Watch how Elsener Jr. reflects lessons from his predecessors and his experience on how Victorinox became the Swiss Army Knife we know now. 

Brian Hadi Attarbashi

Brian is the CEO of AI bees. When he is not running the company with German precision, Brian writes expert articles about marketing and manufacturing. When not doing these, you will find him rescuing dogs or mowing competition down at a jiu jitsu studio.

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