Passionate about innovative machinery in general, Joseph Opinel was born in 1872 in Albiez-le-Vieux, Savoie, France. In accordance with its status of leader and pioneer, the Opinel brand, winner of numerous awards (the first was a gold medal at the 1911 International Alpine Exhibition, and never stop being praised since), uses the best materials for all the tools it offers, which make them durable, tough, and incomparably handy.
The passion of innovation
Though when he turned 18, he started to work for the edge-tool workshop his father owned, his passion for new technologies made him build a camera from scratch and become, at first, a professional photographer, while blacksmithing tools remained a hobby. Then he decided to use his knowledge and the newest machines to create products that he could manufacture by his own, in the workshop – at the opposite of his father, who would rather focus on handmade crafts.
He finally thought out one simple idea: a foldable pocketknife, that came in various sizes but always with the same design. The goal was to propose one design for all sizes of hand and versatile enough to complete virtually any task a knife is supposed to. After years of development and improvements, he ended up with 12 sizes, all foldable except for the smallest one, n°1, that was made to be hanged like a watch – since at this time, wristwatches did not exist yet.
Today, this model is no longer produced, and the biggest one, n°12, is the bestseller, followed closely by n°8, both considered for good reason as the most flexible sizes for different uses. Due to the sudden success after only a few years, he built his own factory to mass-produce these knives. He integrated and developed new machinery to speed up the process, and his natural sense for innovation led him to even install a small hydraulic plant, which gave him access to electricity.
This major step allowed his team to work in better conditions, and for longer hours, thus improving even more the efficiency of the factory… But Opinel did not stop there. He decided to use the huge amount of woodchips produced whilst manufacturing the knife handles to fuel the burning stoves that heated the whole factory. This brilliant sustainable approach is still used in Opinel workshops today.
Caracteristics and features
All the Opinel knives follow the same pattern: a minimalistic and traditional design, made of four parts (the blade, the handle, the rivet and a ferrule to fix the rivet). In 1955, Marcel Opinel, Joseph’s son, added a touch of innovation to the raw model by making the ferrule rotate so it could lock the blade when the knife is opened, for more safety and handiness. This technique, simple in theory but hard to achieve, was patented under the name of Virobloc®, then improved again in the 90’s to lock the blade in closed position too.
In France, uncountable fathers pass on their Opinel to their sons. For its timeless design, and the manufacturing techniques that stayed almost unchanged for more than a century, for the unprecedented impact such a simple tool had on a whole culture (the word Opinel is even in the French dictionary, to designate a simple pocketknife), the Opinel knife is considered by the Victoria and Albert Museum as one of the best designed items of all time, right next to Rolex watches and Porsche 911.
It is told that Pablo Picasso used Opinel knives for some of his creations. An elegant, useful, minimalistic, reliable, renowned yet affordable treasure that will last a lifetime and even more.