Swiss Knives and Videotape: the Victorinox Visitor Centre in Brunnen

Victorinox Visitor Centre, Brunnen, Switzerland

One of Switzerland’s greatest contributions to the world is probably the Swiss Army Knife.  The useful, adaptable tool is hooked to many a keyring around the world.  I’ve never had one.  I’m not very outdoorsy, so it never really occurred to me to invest in it.

But, I have now discovered that everyone needs a Swiss Army Knife.  If not for yourself, think of all the helpful things you can do for others.  On the most popular model, the Spartan, you can help a guy open his beer bottle, while you punch an extra hole in another dude’s belt, strip some wire, open some baked beans, screw in some loose screws and tweeze out a splinter.  The toothpick and small and large blades can all be used effectively on the teeth.

The story began with Karl Elsener I, who in 1884 opened a cutler’s workshop in Ibach-Schwyz.  The knives were made by hand, and the business was always small-scale.  Elsener thought that by creating an association that linked cutlers across Switzerland, they would become a greater force in the industry.  At that point, the Swiss Army got its knives from Germany, where there was a steam-powered knife industry which was somewhat more sophisticated that the Swiss water-powered forges.

In 1891, he established the Association of Swiss Master Cutlers, joined by 30 others, and together they were able to deliver the first supply of knives to the Swiss Army, and take production away from Germany.  The knife that is known as the ‘Swiss Army Knife’ was patented in 1897, and was actually marketed as an officer’s and sports knife.

On the death of his mother in 1909, Elsener chose her name, Victoria, as the brand name of his company and registered the emblem of the cross and shield as the trademark.  The company name took on a further element in 1921, when the invention of stainless steel – or Inox – revolutionised the cutlery industry.  The name ‘Victoria’ was combined with ‘Inox’ to form the company’s name.

Actually, production of the knives delivered to the Swiss Armed Forces was shared with the Wenger company until 2005 – when they took them over.  Some examples of the Victorinox knives are on show, as are some that are designed for NATO, NASA, and armies around the world.

What is also remarkable is the fact that they are basically still made in Switzerland – in a factory down the road from Brunnen at Ibach.  Some parts for some of the knives are made abroad, but the blades, for example, are made at the factory.  There is a sophisticated and long-winded process of making and grinding down the tools so that they are just right.  The special editions are assembled by hand, but even the machine-compiled knives are checked by hand.  It’s an incredible process, and at the Visitor Centre you can learn a little more about it.

There are basically three parts to the Visitor Centre in Brunnen.  On the main floor is the shop – the amazing shop.  Then upstairs is a place where you can watch a film about the company, which was genuinely interesting, and downstairs is the museum.  The small museum consists of knives made by Victorinox but they also do a nice little ‘knives through the ages’ thing, which helps to show that people have always tried to make knives more useful.

Also downstairs is the area where you can assemble your own knife.  You have to book this in advance, and it takes about 15 minutes.  It isn’t difficult, your own version of the Spartan, and it’s a great way of really understanding the clever design and construction of the knives.  The lady who showed me what to do started with an informative spiel, and then explained which each part was used for.

I love mine.  I used it about a week later in Ikea to open up a box (after paying, naturally) and slit my finger open.  It’s sharp.  I bled all over the floor.

But it was a nice clean cut.  No blood on the blade at all.

So In Summary

The main reason I wanted to go to the Visitor Centre was to assemble my own knife.  I did that, and it was fun, and every time I take it out to use I feel proud that I made it.  But I am a simple soul.  They have tried to make the little museum area interesting, but no, it’s not a must-visit for non-Swiss Army Knife aficionados.  But if you’re curious about this tradition, and if you’re in the area, can you buy a knife from a more appropriate spot?

Further Information

For information about the hours the Visitor Centre is open, and to book your chance to assemble your own beaut (in English, of course!), click here:  www.victorinox.com

Ultimately the Visitor Centre is a shop, and it’s difficult to come away without wanting to buy lots of their merchandise.  I’d like to recommend their kitchen knives, which are sharp, but not scarily so.  I also love their travel-gear, and when I’m rich, I will get myself a suitcase – they’re full of useful/thoughtful/awesome details that just make other cases look lame.

There isn’t really anything else to do in Brunnen.  There is a tiny, but significant, church, the Bundeskapelle, but that’s quickly explored.  Sitting by the lake would have been lovely, but the day we went there were little tornados, so we scarpered back to the train station.

How To Get There

The Visitor Centre is right in the middle of the teeny-tiny town.  If, like me, you come from the train station, it’s about a five/ten minute walk.  Check out the ol’ reliable www.sbb.ch site for trains and buses.

If you come into town by boat, it’s like a minute from the pier.  For information in the boat, this site is in English: www.lakelucerne.ch

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Victorinox Visitor Centre

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Victorinox Visitor Centre 46.994350, 8.605546

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