The globetrotting little Opinel knife

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The Independent Online

Picasso used it in his workshop, Ellen MacArthur and Eric Tabarly took it out to sea: from a blacksmith's forge in France's Savoie region, the simple Opinel knife has come a long way.

Today Opinel is a household name and style icon, with its own entry in the main French dictionary and New York's Museum of Modern Art catalogue.

Each year, from a single factory in Chambery, three million of the knives are sold worldwide.

The story of how the wooden-handled folding knife eventually helped Picasso carve his sculptures starts with Joseph Opinel in 1890, "a simple man who had his eye on the future," grandson Maurice Opinel told AFP.

Joseph Opinel had wanted to assert his "independence from his father, a very authoritarian edge-tool maker," the 82-year-old grandson and company president explained.

In 1909 he registered the trademark - bearing the emblem of a crown and a hand - "at a time when this was not common practice" and began exporting the tool to northern Italy and Switzerland using a network of wholesalers.

A fire completely destroyed the factory in 1926 but a new one was built a year later and son Maurice quickly developed the knife into an industrial tool. Before the Second World War, 20 million knives had been sold.

From artists and mariners to mushroom pickers, all are loyal users of the sharp and solid tool.

"It has saved the lives of seamen and mountaineers", one of whom told Maurice Opinel how he managed to escape a sinking vessel by carving steps in the ice with his knife.

There are many pearls in Opinel's proud history of use, but a few black spots too.

"Unfortunately there are some criminal uses which we are not happy about", says Maurice Opinel, recalling French serial killers Guy Georges and Francis Heaulme in whose hands it became a murder weapon.

The absence of a serious competitor and a policy since the 1950s of protecting the trademark around the world have both been key to Opinel's success.

Opinel retrieved the trademark that had been registered illegitimately by the firm importing the knives in Japan.

A present challenge is the battle against cheap replicas being sold in countries including China and Pakistan.

Maurice Opinel also worries about a "resurgence" of what he calls "the anti-knife spirit" that began in the 1990s and was symbolised by knife detectors being installed at the entrance of some buildings such as schools.

"Today we do not give a knife to a seven-year-old, but we would do better to offer him one and teach him how to use it properly" says Opinel, who has founded a national federation to protect the profession.

In 2009 Opinel employed 90 staff and made a turnover of 10 million euros.