French inventor Joseph Opinel (1872–1960) created the eponymous brand of folding knives that have been hailed as one of the most enduring examples of Gallic design. “No Frenchman is without at least one,” enthused British haute-luxe retailer Sir Terence Conran in a 1996 paean to the brand that ran in the United Kingdom's Independent magazine. “I admire their simplicity, the way they fit in the hand, the fact that they last a lifetime, the harmonious marriage of form and function.”
Opinel's paternal grandfather Victor-Amédée Opinel lived in Albiez-le-Vieux and operated a blacksmithing forge that made horseshoeing nails and a variety of agricultural blades: sickles, billhooks for clearing brush, and various axes. Edgetools such as these required hand-finishing of the blade, and in the pre-modern era this sharpening was done by harnessing a local power source—in this case, the Arvan River—to turn a sandstone grinding wheel against the steel blade. Opinel's father Daniel took over VictorAmédée's forge, and Opinel joined the family business as a teenager.
Opinel was fascinated by the emerging technologies of the late nineteenth century. He built his own camera and kept abreast of innovations in the mechanical processes used for tempering steel and other alloys. The origin of his famous Opinel knife dated to 1890, when he designed a small folding utility knife and sold it to local farmers and winemakers. With its polished beechwood handle and spring-loaded blade, this knife could be safely carried in one's pocket and it was also remarkably durable and free from rust if kept clean and dried with a cloth. By 1896, Opinel and three employees were making roughly 50 knives a day at the forge. To speed up the process, he engineered a small device that produced a piece of beechwood precisely sized for use as the knife's handle.
As Opinel's business prospered, he contracted with an informal network of roving salespeople to sell his brandname blades throughout the larger Rhône-Alpes region. He also recruited sellers to give demonstrations at busy railway stations, and this effort helped the company's reputation to spread throughout France. In 1897 the company produced twelve different styles of Opinel knives, their numerical designations reflecting a standardized sizing. The smallest, the No. 1, was sold with a ring so that it could be slipped onto a keychain, and the No. 8, with its sturdy 3.25-inch blade, was Opinel's top seller.
In 1900, a decade after launching his folding knife, Opinel's company produced 20,000 units a day. These knives were used by farmers, sailors, and even vintners, who found the blade ideal for slicing through grapevine brambles. The beechwood grip was smooth and of an ideal weight, the blade could be kept rust-free with proper care, and an ingenious brass or copper coupling ring kept the blade attached to the handle and proved an unassailable bond between human force and the tool's sharp edge.
In 1901 Opinel reinvested his increasing profits into a larger factory located near a bridge over the Arvan River. This new worksite was outfitted with a state-of-the-art hydraulic turbine that drew power from the rapids and generated enough electricity to light the factory floor as well as the Opinel family home in Albiez-le-Vieux, where he lived with his wife Marie-Henriette Sambuis and their three young children.
In 1909 Opinel formally registered the trademark for his knives. Both blade and handle carried the company name and a small logo depicting the emblematic main couronnée, or crowned hand. This was a reference to St. John the Baptist, the patron saint of Saint-Jean-deMaurienne and the apostle who had baptized Jesus. The brand mark consisted of two raised forefingers and a thumb, plus a crown over it representing the Duchy of Savoy. The origins of the main couronnée as a local symbol was several centuries old by this time: in the town of SaintJean-de-Maurienne a magnificent cathedral had been built on the site of a house of worship dating back to the sixth century CE. Enlarged considerably in the 11th century, the St. Jean de Baptiste church had a chapel dedicated to St. Thecla, an early Christian martyr who was reported to have brought the fingers of John the Baptist to the town.
Following the Turin exhibition, Opinel moved his company's production facility to two new locations in Savoie, one a former tannery in Chambéry and the other in Cognin, where the steel blades were forged. A massive fire engulfed the latter site on January 29, 1926, but the company recovered and rebuilt operations. By that point. Opinel's sons Marcel and Léon were involved in running the family business, as was his daughter Angéline, who ran the back-end operations for the firm in the years before World War II. Marcel was responsible for a major innovation in his father's original design: the Virobloc, a mechanism that allowed the knife to remain firmly locked in an open position with a simple flick of the thumb. The term Virobloc was borrowed from the French term virole, referring to the metal coupling between the blade and shaft.
Opinel died at age 88 on January 29, 1960—the 34th anniversary of the devastating Cognin fire. In a remarkable coincidence, three decades later, on January 29, 1990, his son Marcel would also die. In addition to the 1955 Virobloc improvement Marcel also worked assiduously to ensure the family firm remained profitable into a third century. Marcel's grandson Denis took over operations at its merged facilities in Chambéry; an Opinel Museum in St-Jean-de-Maurienne showcases the knives’ long and fabled history.
As a cherished signifier of Gallic simplicity, Opinel knives are mentioned in the Larousse Gastronomique, a French culinary encyclopedia. The brand has also been examined by semiotician Jean-Marie Floch, best known for his rigorous approach to dissecting the world's bestknown logos and marketing symbols. Floch devoted an entire chapter to the history of the Opinel knife in his book Visual Identities, writing in the chapter “Opinel: Intelligence at Knifepoint” that it is “legitimate to imagine that the handle of a knife in fact extends into a certain way of doing things, one that ultimately speaks to a certain way of life or way of being,” he wrote. Contrasting it with the more globally recognized Swiss Army knife, designed for military use, Floch states: “The Opinel becomes an instrument conducive to the expression and the realization of self…. This simple ‘folding knife’ made of beech and steel will testify to its user's knowledge and culture: ‘more knowhow is required to use a simple tool than a complex one,’ Floch adds, borrowing an adage from French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss.”
Floch, Jean-Marie, “Opinel: Intelligence at Knifepoint,” in Visual Identities (originally published as Identités visuelles, Presses Universitaires de France, 1995), Continuum, 2001, pp. 145, 165.
Independent Magazine (London, England), November 9, 1996.
“Opinel Story,”Musée Opinel website, http://www.opinelmusee.com/ (August 15, 2016).❑