Victor-Amédée Opinel, who was a peddler, learnt how to forge nails during his travels around the country. He set up his first forge workshop in Gevoudaz, a hamlet in Albiez-le-Vieux, near Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne. His son Daniel later worked by his side and took over the workshop when his father died. He was to become a renowned edge-tool maker who was very much appreciated by the peasants who came to buy billhooks or sickles from him... *edge-tool maker: manufacturer of tools that have a cutting edge
Birth of Joseph Opinel
Joseph Opinel was the eldest son of Daniel Opinel. He was born in 1872 in Gevoudaz, a hamlet in Albiez-le-Vieux. Joseph had two brothers, Jean (1877-1943) and Albert (1885-1905), and three sisters, Marie (1875-1968), Alphonsine (1879-1959) and Sylvie (1881-1886).
In 1890, Joseph Opinel turned 18 and worked in the family edgetool making workshop. With 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. Led by his passion for machinery and manufacturing processes, he decided to invent an object which he could manufacture using modern techniques. Against his father’s wishes, who preferred hand-made tools and traditional craftsmanship and who was weary of machines, he spent his free time refining the shape and manufactured of a small pocket knife: the Opinel was born!
Series no. 1 to no. 12
Joseph Opinel had the idea of making his knife into different sizes which would be suitable to different hand sizes or used for various tasks. So, in 1897, he developed 12 different sizes numbered from 1 to 12. The smallest knife, named No. 1, included a ring so that it could be attached to the chain of a pocket watch. Its manufacture as well as No. 11’s was stopped in 1935. Nowadays, the smallest Opinel, No. 2, has a 3.5-cm blade and the largest knife, No. 12, a 12-cm blade. 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.
The Pont de Gevoudaz factory
As the commercial success continued, Joseph needed to manufacture large quantities. He left his father’s blacksmith workshop and built his new factory at the Pont de Gevoudaz near the family workshop. In this new building, he streamlined production and developed machines which could manufacture handles at greater speed. With his hydraulic turbine, he was the first in his village to have electricity! After having installed electricity in his workshop and his home, he decided to add a few lights along the lane he used to go to his factory. An old lady in the village, visibly impressed by his system, asked him how he “managed to get oil running through the cables..."
The Crowned Hand
In 1565 the King Charles IX of France ordered that each master cutler affix an emblem on their manufactured items to attest to their origin and quality. To follow in this tradition, Joseph Opinel chose the Crowned Hand as his emblem in 1909. The blessing hand is that of Saint John the Baptist, taken from the coat of arms of Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne, the nearest town in Albiez-le-Vieux, birthplace of the Opinel family. Joseph Opinel added a crown as a reminder that Savoie was a duchy. All the blades on Opinel knives and tools have been stamped with The Crowned Hand ever since.
1911: The Turin International Alpine Exhibition
In 1911 Joseph Opinel took part in the International Alpine Exhibition at Turin. For the occasion, he had a magnificent display case made with a carved wooden frame in which he presented his famous pocket knife, the Opinel Savoie, available in twelve sizes, but also his collection of kitchen knives, table knives, razors, scissors, cheese borers, pruning knives and corkscrews that had quickly arrived to swell the collection... Bowled over and visibly impressed, the jury gave him the gold medal! The 1911 display case is now on show at the Opinel company and the certificate has been carefully preserved in our archives...
The big move!
Joseph soon realised that he would never be able to grow 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 Chambéry, in Cognin, where he bought an old tannery with its own waterfall on the Hyères canal. The premises were old but close to Chambéry railway station. Being at the heart of a large railway and road network was an important asset. Mules and oxen were used to move the factory from Gevoudaz to Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne and then the move continued by train to Chambéry. 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.
The wood chips produced during shaping of the knife hafts have always been used to heat the workshops. Nowadays, these are still used in a combination boiler to heat the factory, which saves approximately 200,000 litres of fuel every year. In January 1926, a wood-burning stove which hadn't properly been extinguished started a fire which destroyed the whole building. The Opinel family handled this disaster and decided to build new modern premises better suited for their production on the same site.
The new factory
Within a few months, a modern factory was built and inaugurated in 1927, on the same day as Maurice, Marcel's first son, was baptised. Today, this factory is closed. In 2014, the “ferrule” workshop, the last workshop in the Cognin factory to be still in active use, was moved to the Chambéry site.
In 1950, Marcel's son also joined the company. He was 23 and spent his first few years assisting his uncle, Léon, who was in charge of marketing and administration. Marcel, who absolutely loved machinery, just like his father before him, took charge of the workshops and production. At that time, the factory employed over fifty people. Maurice Opinel passed away on the 18th of August, 2016. At present, his two sons run the company; François is the president and Denis is the managing director.
Invention of the Virobloc
Originally, the Opinel knife had four components: the blade, the fixed ferrule, the rivet and the haft. The fixed ferrule was needed to firmly rivet the blade to the haft.
In 1955, Marcel Opinel, who had been working on improving the safety of the knife, invented the Virobloc® system. He added a rotating ferrule which slid onto the fixed ferrule, closing the groove and thus locking the blade in the open position. The idea was simple enough but hard to achieve.
In the 90s the Virobloc® system was modified to lock the blade in the closed position. At first. it was only used on a few models, but then was included on all models in 2000.
Joseph Opinel passes away
The 29th of January is cursed for the Opinel family. It was on that day in 1926 that fire devastated the first Cognin factory. On the same day in 1960, Joseph Opinel died aged 88, after having spent his whole life dedicated to his company. And thirty years to the day after his father, Marcel Opinel died on the 29th of January 1990.
The new Chambery site
Thirty years of prosperity increased demand and at the beginning of the 70s, the factory in the small town of Cognin, on the outskirts of Chambéry, became too cramped. The decision was then taken to build a new, larger modern production site a few kilometres away on an industrial estate in Chambéry, at a place called La Revériaz. At first it was intended for woodworking, assembly and packaging, but since 2003 it has been the main site and headquarters for the whole company.
Opinel, a design icon
The Opinel knife is a popular everyday item whose aesthetics and functionality have won over generations of users. It has remained unchanged for over a century, with a design that is one of the most successful of all time. For this reason, Opinel was recognised by the Victoria and Albert Museum in 1985 as one of the 100 best designed items in the world, right alongside the Porsche 911 and the Rolex watch.
Opinel enters the dictionary
Opinel is part of French cultural heritage and is cited by name in many publications. In 1989, it received an entry in the Larousse dictionary, alongside the brands Bic, Frigidaire or Solex as a registered trade name with the following current definition: folding knife featuring a wooden haft with a groove in which the blade is inserted when the knife is closed.
The family saga continues
In 1998, Denis Opinel who started working in the business in 1973, took over from his father Maurice Opinel.
Construction of the new head office
To facilitate production flow and the growth of the company, the decision was made to gradually coalesce all of the business activities into one site. So in 2003 the head office was moved from Cognin to Revériaz. A new building was constructed alongside the existing workshops. The Opinel buildings at 508 boulevard Henry Bordeaux in Chambéry now covered a 5,000-m² area.
In the beautiful three-volume "Phaidon Design Classics" collection, the Opinel pocket knife is recognised as one of the 999 most successful designs of all time by a jury of international designers.
Cooking with Opinel
To celebrate the 150th anniversary of Savoie's integration into France, Opinel published the “La cuisine à l’Opinel” (Cooking with Opinel) cookery book It's a real fine dining voyage into the Opinel region, containing portraits and recipes by 25 Michelin-starred chefs from Savoie, Haute-Savoie, Piedmont and the Nice region, including fascinating anecdotes about the history of Savoie’s gastronomy written by Annie Victor and illustrated by the photographs of Anthony Cottarel. The book received first prize in the Gourmand World Cookbook Awards 2009, in the Best Corporate Book in France category (published by Lagon Rouge publishing, out of print).
The Opinel museum
In 1989, with the permission of the Opinel Company, Jacques Opinel turned the workshop of his grandfather Jean (Joseph's brother), who was also a blacksmith/edge-tool maker, into a museum. The Opinel museum is located in Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne and rapidly became one of the top visitor destinations in Savoie. This free, private museum exploring Opinel®'s history was successfully renovated and enlarged in 2013 and then again in 2018 by the Opinel company, Jacques Opinel and his son Maxime. There, you will discover the Opinel family's origins and Savoie roots, as well as the changes to the manufacturing processes and the technical and commercial development of the brand. The visit concludes with a film that was shot inside the workshops, demonstrating the current manufacturing processes. more info
The Opinel story
It took until 2014 for Opinel to finally decide to tell the story of a family with an extraordinary destiny. A 160-page book was written by the author and journalist Jean-François Mesplède, former director of the French Michelin Guide. With a foreword by Paul Bocuse and Michel Desjoyeaux, the tale unfolds through revelations by Maurice and Denis Opinel and interviews with company employees. The book is beautifully illustrated with magnificent archive documents and photographs by Thierry Vallier. (Page d’Ecriture publishing, €25).
The French knife settles in the US
In spring 2016, the company opened its first branch abroad. Based in Chicago, OPINEL USA heads up the marketing and development of the Savoie knife brand in the United States.