Knife Of 100 Uses

November 01, 1991|By Los Angeles Times

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.

It 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.

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

A traveling salesman from Cockeysville, Mr. Pickler prides himself on having virtually every handle variety ever made -- granite, tortoise shell, stag horn, mother-of-pearl and sterling silver.

And the knives have other devotees, as well: "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." And sculptor Claes Oldenburg found it an inspiration for a work of art.

Among its most prestigious owners are President Bush and the nation's astronauts, who carry the knife as part of their regulation gear on space-shuttle flights.

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.

Of course, when knife fans meet, conversation often turns to the sundry ways they've used them. Mr. Pickler tells how he cut through a reinforcing rod in the Berlin Wall with the hacksaw on his Grand Prix model. A crowd waited eagerly as he loosened a basketball-sized chunk of the famous barrier, he says.

Whatever the knives mean to their owners, they have come a long way from the first soldier's knife, a simple wood-handled affair that Karl Elsener, a cutler from Ibach, Switzerland, made 100 years ago 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 like a sandwich.

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