The Swiss Army Knife: survival of the sharpest

It may have blades, scissors and a little spiky thing to take pebbles out of horse hooves, but can the world's most trusty penknife survive the war on terrorism? Rose George reports

At the far side of the X-ray machine, sometime last week, the woman was holding up a pair of nail scissors. "But they're gold!" she said, with some distress. The security official at Gatwick's North Terminal was unmoved. Leave them here, she said, or mail them back at a cost of £5. They were definitely lethal weapons, and they quite definitely had to go.

Multiply this small incident by several thousand a day - in 2002, British airports were confiscating items from every 17th passenger - and it's little wonder that, in the factories responsible for producing the world's smallest sharp objects, there is discontent and despondency. In this frosty post-September 11 world, no-one is immune, and the most venerable sharp object of all - the unassailable, indispensable Swiss Army Knife - is as vulnerable as the humble tweezer. In the 14 months following the attacks, 1.8 million knives were confiscated in US airports, and most were little red ones with white crosses on.

"We've lost about 10 per cent of overall Swiss Army Knife sales," says Hans Schorno, the spokesperson for Victorinox, one of two companies officially licensed to make the knives, from the German-speaking Swiss town of Ibach. Once the essential equipment for anyone with pockets and MacGyver instincts, Swiss Army Knives - SAKs to fans - are now more often seen forlornly in those Plexiglas sharp object containers in the X-ray queues, along with spoons, plastic scissors and knitting needles.

Wenger, the other official Swiss manufacturer of the knives, have struggled so much that last week it was bought by fellow Swiss - though German-speaking - Victorinox. "Keeping the Swiss cross in Swiss hands was the best way to move forward," said Victorinox CEO Carls Elsener Jr. It goes down well with hard-core SAKS fans, too, on forums where the difference between Wenger and Victorinox is fiercely debated - Victorinox usually comes off better for its superior fit, finish, and blades.

But it's the blades, of course, that are the problem. And, in response, Victorinox and Wenger have had to get adventurous. Not that they haven't always been adventurous. Persistence and invention have characterised the world of SAKs since Karl Elsener first produced his prototype two-bladed six-springed "Officer's and Sport's Knife" back in 1897. It was an immediate success - and not just among Swiss officers. US GI's discovered it in the Second World War, PX supply stores have stocked it ever after. NASA carries SAKs on its space shuttles, and US presidents give them as gifts. Victorinox makes 120,000 knives a day - 25 million annually - and exports to 150 countries. And, far from being two blade only, they make knives that have flashlights and butane lighters, and heavy-duty lock-blade and screwdrivers for police and fire brigades. And yes, the Swiss Army does use Swiss Army knives: 50,000 a year are issued to new recruits.

But even this sure thing is vulnerable, since the Swiss voted in 2003 to cut their military forces in half. Meanwhile, competition from civilians - notably South East Asian fakers and factories - has been aggressive. Constant legal battles, aided by efficient Swiss embassies stepping in whenever copyright is breached by fakers, can only go so far. Add to that the recent ruling by the Department of Transport that has allowed metal cutlery, needles and nail scissors back on planes, but not the SAK, and you can see why the company has had to get inventive.

Hence, the knifeless knife, in the shape of "the perfect tool for travelling," in Schorno's words - including a watch, clock, timer and an LED lamp, but no blade. Or, the Swissmemory series, which includes a USB memory stick, a pen, and a USB stick, which can be removed and carried on board. Sales are good, says Schorno, and he thinks they'll get better. "It was the right product at the right time."

Already, there is geek approval. "I am amazed at the satisfaction I get when I break into my sister's room like 007," wrote Tom C on one gadget site. "Using a mixture of the scissors and the knife I can easily pick through her lock; next using the strong red light I can search desks for clues to the whereabouts of her laptop. Once broken into, I can "borrow" files for brotherly blackmail, writing the blackmail note with the pen, then leaving the room where I file my nails after a job well done."

There might be life in the old knife yet.

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