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Everything but the Kitchen Sink : Swiss Army Knives--Something Spies, GIs, Reagan Aides and Explorers Have in Common

July 09, 1987|WILLIAM TUOHY | Times Staff Writer

IBACH, Switzerland — It has been the subject of cartoons and letters of appreciation and is an object of affection among explorers, mountaineers and more homebound citizens.

It is the Swiss army knife, with its distinctive red handle bearing a white cross, and in the minds of many it has become the symbol of this country--rivaling banks, watches, chocolates and the national airline.

Ibach, an hour's drive south of Zurich, is the headquarters of Victorinox, one of the two official makers of Swiss army knives. The company produces about 20,000 knives a day.

"We're doing better than ever," export manager Xavier Ehrler told a recent visitor to his office, which looks out on the Alps. "But we're keeping our fingers crossed. The falling American dollar makes our knives more expensive in the U.S.A."

More than half of the knives produced are exported to the United States, and prices have indeed risen because of the falling dollar.

Further, the Swiss knives run into sharp competition from cheap copies made in Japan, Taiwan and China. Firms in these countries call their products Swiss army- style knives and sell them by mail-order.

The phenomenal success of the Swiss army knife, according to Ehrler, is due to its combination of high quality and a certain mystique it has acquired.

"It's something we wonder about ourselves," Ehrler said. "But, thanks to the American GI, the knife became popular at a time when people were getting involved with outdoor activities."

The great appeal of the Swiss knife, which comes in about 300 models, is the wide range of features it contains, though it is no larger than other pocket knives. The latest top-of-the-line model, the "Swiss Champ," has 19 blades and tools with 29 different functions.

Basically, this is a mini tool box that can be held comfortably in the hand. It sells for about $60 in the United States, and it includes, among other things, a large blade, a small blade, a corkscrew, a can opener, a screwdriver, a bottle cap lifter, a wire stripper, a reamer, scissors, a magnifying glass and a wood saw.

When opened, it looks like a giant centipede, but it is so practical and compact that it has been included in the design collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The Swiss Champ is made up of 63 separate parts and more than 45 processes are involved in assembling it. A cartoon in the New Yorker magazine once showed it opening into a couch, and a drawing in a German newspaper showed it orbiting in space, its blades extended like antennae.

The knife has been standard issue for astronauts, Himalayan climbers and members of a British North Pole expedition. At the Pole, it was used to cut off the clothing of a man who had fallen through the ice.

Many customers have written letters testifying to how the knife helped them out of tight spots. A West German told of using the knife to cut his way out of a burning airplane. Spy pilot Gary Francis Powers was carrying a Swiss army knife when he was shot down over the Soviet Union in 1960, and the Soviets displayed it along with his CIA secret gadgets. One of the most popular models of the knife has nine standard features.

Smaller models have been bought by the White House to be given as gifts. President Reagan ordered 2,000 penknives in royal blue, with the presidential seal and his signature in gold. This model, 2 inches long, has a blade, a nail file, scissors, tweezers and a toothpick.

The story of the Swiss army knife begins with Carl Elsener, who in 1891 started producing knives for the government in his factory here. At first, he produced a jackknife called the "Soldier's Knife." Later, he turned out a more elegant version, with a corkscrew. This was called the "Officer's Knife" and was patented in 1897. Over the years, it grew more sophisticated as blades and tools were added.

In 1909, after the death of Elsener's mother, he chose her name, Victoria, as the name for his company. In 1921, with the development of stainless steel, the word inox, as stainless steel is called in Europe, was added. Meanwhile, in Delemont in northwest Switzerland, a company named Wenger began making knives based, Ehrler says, on the Victorinox principle. Only these two companies have the Swiss government's permission to use the white Swiss cross on their knives.

The Swiss army still buys about 40,000 knives a year for its recruits. This is a model with an aluminium handle. The West German army also buys the knife, but with a khaki handle bearing the likeness of the German eagle instead of the Swiss cross.

About 80% of total production is exported, half of it to the United States, and about 10% of the total is bought by tourists in Switzerland. Victorinox reports annual sales of about $65.8 million; Wenger declined to provide a sales figure. Both firms are in private hands.

Ehrler still refers to his knife as an officer's knife, but he says that after World War II it was discovered by American soldiers.

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