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It's Still on the Cutting Edge : Milestones: As it celebrates its 100th anniversary, the Swiss Army Knife continues to reign as the world's favorite piece of cult cutlery.

October 16, 1991|ELIZABETH VENANT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Charles Plotkin was on a USAir flight to Memphis last year when a stewardess called for emergency medical aid: a passenger was choking to death on his airline dinner.

Plotkin, a North Carolina anesthetist, rushed to the side of an elderly Englishman who had a chunk of steak lodged in his throat. When first aid failed to remove the obstruction, Plotkin whipped out his trusty Swiss army knife, intending to do impromptu surgery.

But, alas, his 2 1/4-inch Classic blade was not long enough. Did anybody have a larger Swiss army knife he cried out--causing half a dozen passengers to spring to his service.

Wielding a longer Camper version, Plotkin punctured the dying man's neck, allowing him to receive oxygen until he could be rushed to a hospital.

Hearing of the incident, executives of the knife's principal U.S. distributor, the Forschner Group, lamented that the good Samaritan did not have the proper attachment. After all, Victorinox Cutlery Corp., manufacturer of the Original Swiss Army Knife, makes a model with a curved, surgical tracheotomy blade.

The official knife of Switzerland's civilian-based military forces since 1891, the Swiss army knife is celebrating its 100th birthday this year.

Typically, it is doing so without fanfare, although a commemorative limited-edition knife is being offered for sale. The knife does nothing so brash as to advertise itself; companies from Pacific Bell to Sony do it instead, using the knife in their ads to evoke images of versatility and durability. Defying the powers of marketing and promotion, it has attained that rare status of cult object, receiving unsolicited kudos from devotees around the world, 9 million of whom buy Victorinox knives every year.

Among its most prestigious owners are President Bush and the nation's astronauts. "Dallas" star J.R., a.k.a. Larry Hagman, is a fan, as is CBS News correspondent Charles Kuralt, who wrote about his handy knife in the book "A Life on the Road." MacGyver, of the television adventure series of the same name, is forever using the little tool to get out of trouble, while sculptor Claes Oldenburg found it an inspiration for a work of art.

New York's Museum of Modern Art keeps a sample in its permanent collection, whereas ordinary citizens use their knives for tasks that range from the sublime to the embarrassing--from chipping pieces off of the Berlin Wall to cleaning dirty fingernails.

And, yes, there is a Swiss Army Knife Society.

"There's an affection for something that's made so well and is so practical," says Rick Wall, founder of the San Diego-based organization, which claims 2,300 members.

However, aficionados agree, pride in the knife goes beyond simple pragmatism. The knife is reminiscent of boyhood (users are mostly men), a reminder of past adventures and a catalyst for camaraderie.

In commercial bonding rites, dozens of companies offer knives to customers as promotional pieces imprinted with their logos. And in a tradition instituted by President Lyndon B. Johnson, the White House also presents guests with Swiss army knives that feature a gold presidential seal.

It is a long way from the first soldier's knife, a simple wood-handled affair that Karl Elsener, a cutler from Ibach, Switzerland, made for the Swiss army. The key to his invention was the spring mechanism that allows numerous attachments to be balanced on either side of the knife, which is assembled much as a sandwich is.

Soon after the first model came out, another was designed for civilians, with a red handle so it could be easily found in the snow. Today the Swiss army uses knives with a more durable aluminum handle. The knives also have a device for launching grenades from a soldier's rifle, a feature not on the commercial equivalent.

Victorinox annually supplies the army with 30,000 knives, with further orders given to Wenger, a second official supplier, which has been producing the Genuine Swiss Army Knife since 1916.

Still a family firm, headed by Elsener's great-grandson, Victorinox today sells more than 300 models in Switzerland and about 50 in the United States. In Europe, carrying a knife that suits a man's way of life--be it hunting or electrical repair work--has long been a tradition.

In the United States, specialty knives are particularly popular for sportsmen. For instance, the Angler, made for fishermen, comes with a hook disgorger and fish scaler, while the Caddie, for golfers, features a pronged divot fixer for plumping up dents in the greens.

The granddaddy of them all, the 6.8-ounce SwissChamp, has no fewer than 29 attachments, including such indispensable items as a reamer with sewing eye for stitching leather, a tiny screwdriver for repairing eyeglasses, a ballpoint pen, a magnifying glass and a wire stripper. (The tracheotomy knife was made as a promotional item.)

Collecting the array of knives has become a challenge for serious aficionados like Fred Pickler, who owns 550 Victorinox knives.

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