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On the edge: How Victorinox makes the world's best-known knives

Toni Haberthuer of Swiss knife-maker Victorinox gives an insider's account of making some of the world's best-known knives

By Jasodhara Banerjee Forbes India Staff
Published: Nov 10, 2016

Victorinox, possibly most visible as the makers of the famed Swiss Army Knife, has been an expert at knife-making for over 130 years. The company, however, has a flourishing business of manufacturing cutlery knives for professionals and home kitchens as well. Toni Haberthuer, global head of the knife division at Victorinox, talks to Forbes India about the various elements that go into making good cutting instruments, and how the company has evolved with the times. Edited excerpts:

Q. What makes a good knife?
A good knife is made from good steel, the right treatment and the cutting edge. That’s what we are known for. Ours is a bevel edge. There are other edges made by the Japanese, which are more like a razor edge; and that is spectacular. It is extremely sharp, but you have to resharpen it a lot. And you need to be an expert to do that, to keep the geometry of the knife. Repeated sharpening also means you are wearing off the knife.

Ours is a more long-lasting edge. So, in the beginning it is not that spectacular, but they last very long, and are very easy to resharpen.

We have knives for professionals. And most professionals like knives that are not very complicated.

Q. What kind of knives did Victorinox start with?
The company started with cutlery, and then went on to make pocket knives. There was a demand from the Swiss Army for a multi-functional tool [which came to be called the Swiss Army Knife, or SAK] with which they could clean their weapons; it had screwdrivers, it could open cans of food. Victorinox supplies SAKs not just to the Swiss Army, but to the Germans, Indians, Malaysians and Americans as well.

Q. What features should a buyer look for when buying a knife?
Sharpness, and firmness of the blade, which means it should not be easily breakable. For this, the ingredients of the steel are very important, and the way in which it has been hardened. Then the stamping method, by which you stamp out the knives from sheets of metal, is important; also, how hard the edge is and its shape. And then the final treatment and polishing; the way you seal off the knife so that it does not corrode.

Q. Do you use the same kind of steel in all your knives?
No. We have different sorts, different mixes of steel. We get these from our suppliers in France and Germany; we have been working with them for almost a hundred years now. The steel depends on what you use it for—small knives, large knives, a knife for cutting something soft, or a knife with a serrated edge. The usage would determine the kind of alloy you use, although these alloys may not vary greatly from each other.

Each different tool in an SAK too might be made from a different kind of steel. For instance, the screwdriver tool needs to be firm, but also flexible, because there can be a lot of pressure on it and you don’t want it to break. For the metal file and saw tool, the steel should be very hard and shouldn’t break, and should have good torsion at its base.

The secret of the SAK is also the back side of each tool; it should be flexible and there should be a click when you push the tool back into its place. So the back side bends a little bit and jumps back into shape, and is made of softer steel. An SAK that has 33 tools would have four to five different kinds of steel in it. We also use Alox [aluminium oxide] to form the dividers between the different layers; they shouldn’t be too heavy, shouldn’t corrode, and should be firm enough to provide stability.

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Q. What are the alloy mixes and other materials that go into making your knives?
The steel alloy is usually a mix of carbon and chromium. Carbon is very hard and very brittle. Chromium softens it up, and gives it flexibility. The right mix of the two is what defines most good knife-makers. Hard steel may be good for some things, and not other things. There is also a lot of corrosion when there is a high degree of carbon.

Q. What materials are used to make knife handles? Does this depend on the knife’s use?
Handles are made of different materials. The handles of SAKs are made of celluloid, as well as Alox. There are also wooden handles, which look very nice, like in the Hunter Pro Wood model, which uses walnut wood. Wood is very trendy right now, although it is a bit more expensive because it has to be specially treated. We also use rosewood from India. We usually take wood that is a waste product of furniture companies.
   
Among kitchen knives, there is a different philosophy when it comes to handles. Professional knives need to be put into high-temperature cleaning systems and huge dishwashers, and have handles made of synthetic material. But kitchen knives usually have handles of wood.

With about 800 people employed in production, Victorinox makes about 120,000 knives a day
With about 800 people employed in production, Victorinox makes about 120,000 knives a day

Professionals would also never use knives with the traditional rivets on the handles, because that is too heavy. They prefer something lighter, with a good grip. In the kitchen, you would want something that you could put on a hot stove and it wouldn’t ruin the knife, and wood is a good material for that. Wood also absorbs the juices from cooking, and many chefs like keeping their wooden knives because they have acquired the shape of their hands. You can resharpen them and keep them forever.

But you cannot put a wooden handle in a dishwasher. The point where the handle ends and the blade begins, that space should be sealed [to not allow food particles to accumulate there]. In synthetic handles, we can seal that space, but in wooden knives we can’t.

Q. What is the secret of Victorinox knives?

The secret is in the way we stamp our knives, the shape we give them, the cutting edge we make, and also the way in which we make the handle.

Apart from buying the steel, we make everything else on our own. We even design our own machinery, according to our own needs. Our whole factory is filled with our own machinery that you cannot buy anywhere. The guys in production are very keen on not having anyone take pictures! We have about 1,000 people employed in our headquarters in Ibach, Switzerland, of which about 800 work in production. We make about 120,000 knives a day.

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Q. Have there been tools that have been discontinued in SAKs over time?
Some tools were good for the time when they were made, but then their need disappeared. Like a tool that was used to remove bullet remnants from guns [used by armies]. I wonder whether the corkscrew, which has been integral to our design, will still be there because more and more bottles now have screw-on caps.

Q. How do you know whether a tool is being used by customers?

We get a lot of feedback. A lot of good ideas have been given to us. Over about 130 years, we have made 600 kinds of pocket tools, so we have done everything that was to be done—in all colours and sizes. But our best models have been in production for 20 or 30 years. So, there is innovation, but it has been gradual.

The Climber has been a classic and one of our top three sellers. It has the right number of tools—scissors, blades, corkscrew, toothpick, tweezers; these are things that most people want. Then we started specialising, for instance, with the Swiss Champ that has 33 functions. It’s great, but most people don’t need them.

One of the good innovations was about 10 or 15 years ago, when we made the RescueTool, for people who get locked into cars, or have accidents. So it has something to break the window glass, or cut through the windshield; then there’s a curved blade for cutting through the seat belt without hurting the person. It also has fluorescence that glows in the dark. It was developed along with our country’s fire-fighting squad, and is popular with emergency services everywhere.

Q. How important is innovation to Victorinox?

Last fall, we started a new product development process that is based on the Stage-Gate Product Innovation Process. It is a model that is often used in the illustration stage of the development process. It is used in many industries, but Victorinox didn’t have this process earlier, when innovation was taking place, whenever someone had a good idea. But now, since the market and the economy have become more challenging, marketing new products needs to start earlier. We can’t really say, ‘Let’s start something and see how it works out’.

With this new process, in one year, we come out with 30 new products within SAKs, and about 20 for cutlery knives. Some of these innovations may be variations of older products, some might be entirely new products.

But innovation is always a challenge for us because we have a product that is fully developed, with so many variations. And we cannot reinvent our best knives; they are perfect.

We are currently developing a new tool for the Indian navy, which is like a marlinspike; it’s like the horn of an ox and is used by ships to open the different seams of ropes, or open up knots.

(This story appears in the 11 November, 2016 issue of Forbes India. You can buy our tablet version from Magzter.com. To visit our Archives, click here.)

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