I am huge fan of Opinel knives. Wearing another hat, I was prompted to go a do some digging into the history of the brand and the family behind it. As this piece was never used, I am going to pop it up here for the delectation of those who, like me, love this quintessentially French knife. Here therefore is the tale of a simple peasant knife that has become a world-wide success, a tale told in steel and wood.
The Opinel story begins back in 1800 with Victor-Amédée Opinel, a peddler who learnt how to forge nails during his travels. Presumably tiring of his travels, he established a blacksmith workshop in Gevoudaz, a hamlet part of Albiez-le-Vieux, near Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne. After his death, Victor was succeeded by his son Daniel who had worked alongside his father learning the trade at his side. Daniel became a renowned “edgetool maker”, his billhooks and scythes being popular amongst farmers who would come from afar to purchase them.
In 1872 Joseph Opinel was born, the eldest son of Daniel Opinel. In 1890 Joseph Opinel turned 18 and began work in the family edgetool making workshop. Joseph brought a passion for new machines and innovative technologies, he built his own camera and soon became the photographer for weddings and special events in his area. It was this passion for machinery and manufacturing processes that led Joseph to seek something that could be made using the most modern of techniques. Daniel, his father was less than enthusiastic being firmly rooted in the tradition of handmade tools but Joseph persevered. Joseph spent his free time designing and refining the shape and manufactured of a small pocket knife: the Opinel was born.
Like many great ideas, the Opinel knife did not spring fully formed from Joseph’s imagination and straight into production, it was 1897 before the first knives were produced. Whilst designing the knife, the idea had occurred to Joseph that the knife could be made in a variety of sizes, better to suit individual hands and tasks. The result was a series of knives, all based on the same basic design numbered from 1 – 12. The No. 1 was the smallest and had a ring that could be attached to a pocket watch chain, No. 12, that largest knife had a blade that measured 12cm. The range as introduced in 1897 survived unchanged until 1935 when the No. 1 and No. 11 knives were dropped, the smaller being considered just too small and the larger because there was very little difference between it and the larger No. 12. In the 70s, a giant knife was produced in small volumes as a promotional item to be used in shop windows. The retailers were rapidly asking Opinel to produce larger quantities due to requests from private individuals! The blade of the giant No. 13 is 22 cm long making the knife 50 cm long when fully open.
As the Twentieth Century dawned and commercial success continued, Joseph needed to dramatically increase manufacturing capacity of Opinel knives. He built his new factory at the Pont de Gevoudaz near the family workshop. Here he streamlined production and developed machines which could manufacture knife handles at greater speed. Having installed a hydraulic turbine, he was the first in his village to have electricity. With the factory electrified, along with his workshop and home, he decided to add a few lights along the lane he used to go to his factory prompting an elderly resident to wonder aloud how he “managed to get oil running through the cables…”
By 1915 Joseph had realised that he would never be able to develop his business if he stayed in this remote hamlet. In the middle of the war, he decided to travel around the area to find the perfect place. That happened to be on the outskirts of Chambery, in Cognin, where he bought an old tannery with its own waterfall on the Hyères canal. The premises were old but close to Chambery railway station. Being at the heart of a large railway and road network was an important asset. A few months were needed to renovate the premises and from 1917, Joseph, assisted by his two sons, Marcel and Léon, began the industrial and commercial development of the Opinel brand. Production continued until 1926 when a fire utterly destroyed the factory, prompting yet another move to a newly built facility. Opinel have remained in or very near Chambery ever since.
A distinctive feature of Opinel knives is the crowned hand found on every blade. In 1565, King Charles IX of France ordered each master cutler to add his emblem to his products to guarantee their origin and quality. Joseph Opinel chose the Crowned Hand emblem in 1909. The blessing hand is that of Saint Jean-Baptiste. Joseph Opinel added the crown as a reminder that the Savoie was a duchy. Every single Opinel blade and tool is stamped with the Crowned Hand.
One of the abiding qualities of the Opinel knives is their simplicity. Modern knives consist of only five components; the handle, typically turned from beech or birch, the blade, either Sandvic stainless steel or more traditional carbon steel, the metal ring through which the rivet on which the blade hinges passes and the Virobloc safety ring. Originally there were only 4 parts to each knife, from 2000 the Virobloc was added to every knife in the range from the No.6 up. In eschewing the use of springs to hold the blade in either the open or closed position as is common in penknives, even knives of a similar age, Opinel simplified the production of his knife enormously. He also simplified it’s price – even today the most commonly used sizes of knife sell for around £7-£10 GBP.
It is only when you stop and look at what Opinel did with the design of the pocket knife that you truly appreciate his genius. What most of us probably regard as the “classic” pocket knife, the slip joint knife, was invented in the late 1660s and Opinel would undoubtedly have been well aware of them. The slip joint knife uses a hinged blade that is held in the open and closed position by the use of a back-spring. Think of any classic pocket knife design and you are probably thinking of a slip joint knife. Opinel went in a completely different direction, one which may be regarded as brave since there was no provision for securing the blade on Opinel knives until the introduction of the Virobloc in 1955. If the blade on your Opinel became loose you either replaced it, hit the rivet to tighten it or dunked it in water, which caused the wooden handle to expand thereby tightening the hinge!
Manufacturing was also simpler compared to slip joint design, as we have seen it required only four pieces. A typical slip joint knife will have at least double that number of components, and most of them need to be made to precise tolerances from steel or brass. This isn’t to say that Opinel isn’t a precision made tool, it is, but by foregoing the spring Joseph Opinel massively simplified the manufacturing process. It is interesting to note than very few manufacturers have ever attempted to replicate Opinel’s design…
In the UK the presence of the Virobloc poses an interesting dilemma for anyone using an Opinel as an EDC (every day carry) knife. UK law does not allow lock-knives, well it does, but if challenged you have to be able to show good reason for carrying such a knife. It also limits the blade length to 3 inches or smaller. The No.5 Opinel does not have the Virobloc but frankly it’s a small knife even for mundane tasks like opening letters or cutting fruit. The Number 6 is perfect in this respect having a blade just under three inches – but it comes with the Virobloc. The answer, should you be looking for one is fairly simple but does require you stepping back into previous centuries. With the knife closed, lock the Virobloc and then open the blade. The Virobloc will ping off (so do this where you can retrieve it). The Number 6 is now restored to it’s pre-2000 state and is a non-locking knife. Since Opinels managed for decades without the lock mechanism you should be just fine as long as you use it as carefully as you would any other knife. Generally the blade on an Opinel is stiff anyway and you should never use a knife, locking or not, in such a way that it could close on your fingers. It’s a sad state of affairs that such things are necessary but that’s the world we Brits live in. In the rest of the world, we doubt this is any kind of issue for you and you’ll all be happily carrying the even more practical No. 8.
The choice between stainless and carbon steel is a personal one – I have several of both as do many Opinel owners (well, they are so affordable!). The argument is generally that carbon steel takes an edge more easily and develops a nice patina with age whereas stainless is harder and doesn’t stain (obvious really). In truth it makes little practical day to day difference.
The simplicity of the knives also makes them very popular as a base for custom designs and modification, whether that is something as simple as staining the handle a different colour or altering the blade shape and radically changing the handle. Opinel actually produce finished/unfinished knives with the handle left in a relatively raw state to allow the owner to carve it to their own design. If you’re curious there are many many pages online dedicated to these knives.
The Opinel is not “the perfect knife” but it is unique, astonishingly simple and remarkably robust and practical. Opinel has gone from strength to strength and shows no sign of weakening. As long as we have a need to cut, we suspect that Opinel will be there to help us do so. Vive la France!