Swiss army knife down but not out

"9/11 was as absolute catastrophe"

Luke Harding

IBACH (SWITZERLAND): As the jihadi terrorists flew two hijacked planes into the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001, Carl Elsener was at home. Like everyone else, he watched the TV footage with a mixture of horror and shock. It was only a few days later he realised that the attacks were a bad news for his business. Mr. Elsener is the great-grandson of Karl Elsener, the man who, in 1884, invented the Swiss army knife. At a time when Switzerland was one of Europe's poorest countries, Elsener wanted to create jobs. He decided to build a knife factory. Soon, he was turning out knives for Switzerland's famously non-combative army.

Over the past century, the Elsener family has transformed the Swiss army knife into an iconic global brand. It became one of the 20th century's most successful products — until 9/11.``It was an absolute catastrophe for us,'' Mr. Elsener says.Under new airline regulations, passengers could no longer carry the Swiss army knife in their hand luggage. Those who didn't comply had their knives confiscated — and they weren't returned at the other end.

The effects were sudden, and devastating. Sales of Swiss army knives dropped by 40 per cent almost immediately.

Despite 9/11 it would be an exaggeration to talk about the knife's demise, however. The Elseners are still manufacturing 34,000 Swiss army knives a day in the tiny village of Ibach. The local tourist board has even devised a name for the area, 50km south of Zurich — ``Swiss knife valley.''

At least the firm's original client — the Swiss Army — is still ordering knives. The standard-issue knife given to every Swiss soldier has the famous red Swiss flag badging and four functions: a bottle and can opener, a file, and a blade.

Victorinox has also introduced a host of new products — a kids' Swiss army knife; a blade-free air-travel version.It is perhaps appropriate that the Victorinox factory sits just underneath a mountain range known as Mythos. The firm is keen to promote the legendary virtues of the knife — which has been used to save children from sinking cars, repair the space shuttle, and deliver foals. A German doctor last week sent the firm gruesome photos showing how he used a multi-tool knife to cut off the leg of a tsunami victim in Sri Lanka. He would have preferred a saw, he said, but there wasn't one available. The aesthetics of the Swiss army knife, meanwhile, remain just as pleasing as ever.

- Guardian Newspapers Limited 2005

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