How Quality, Functionality, Innovation and Swiss Design forged a diplomatic common ground with Japan
The 150th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Japan and Switzerland was on the horizon, and how to celebrate it was on everyone’s mind. That is, until Carl Elsener – CEO of Victorinox AG – took a call from Victorinox Japan CEO, Ms Mamiko Tanaka, who had been contacted by the Swiss Embassy in Tokyo. They had asked her to consider staging an exhibition of Victorinox knives in the Japanese capital. How better to celebrate this long-standing relationship than with a company that the world equates with the virtues of the whitecrossed flag? Ask anyone abroad what comes to mind when they hear the word ‘Switzerland’ and they’ll shoot back ‘Victorinox’ almost every time.
The Victorinox AG story begins in 1884 when its company founder, Karl Elsener, began crafting, in his unassuming workshop, multi-purpose compact knives, the base model for which remains unchanged to this day.
His mother owned a hat and coat shop just up the street from what today is Victorinox’s international headquarters, where she provided the young Karl with two display cases to sell from. His blades were successful, and in 1891, Elsener formed the Swiss Cutler’s Association in response to an army demand for Soldier Knives. Once united, the Swiss association produced and delivered thousands.
The brand morphed from ‘Victoria’ – named after Karl Elsener’s mother – to ‘Victorinox’ when stainless steel (inox) blades replaced carbon in 1921. Production skyrocketed in 1945 when American soldiers brought the knives back as gifts from Europe after the war. The Swiss Army Knife as we know it today was developed for leisurely picnic and camping trips, the only difference from the Soldier Knife being a corkscrew instead of a screwdriver. With an endgame of encouraging outdoor activities, its conception unwittingly contributed to the cultural sustainability for which Switzerland is famous.
Four generations later, Carl Elsener sits at the head of the family-owned company alongside his wife Veronika, head of global management. The brand has been awarded the Epica Silver, Red Dot and Good Design Awards, as well as the IDEE-SUISSE Innovation Prize. Duvel tagged the company as Switzerland’s ‘authentic brand’ in its five-month Brand Expedition across Europe, and that same year, Carl Elsener Sr was inducted into Blade Magazine’s Hall of Fame. The company has been honoured by ICD International Chefs, and even took a FiFi Award for the Technological Breakthrough of the Year for its Victorinox Swiss ‘Unlimited’ men’s fragrance. To round off an eclectic list of achievements, the Victorinox Officer’s Knife is part of a permanent collection at New York City’s Museum of Modern Art.
Despite netting copious accolades, the family balances success with modesty, aligned with a core characteristic of Switzerland-bred humility, which coincidentally jibes with similar cultural virtues that are deeply admired in Japan.
Additional parallels between Japanese and Swiss culture are evident: tradition, moderation, dedication, heritage, and loyalty, which set the framework for a collaboration that has been successful for 150 years.
The reality of conflicting perceptions contrasted starkly with this celebration of long-standing, friendly diplomatic relations. Victorinox’s response to that was a strike of statecraft: changing perception, turning a symbol of war into a tool of peace.
“The exhibit presents the Swiss Army Knife in a way that showcases its functionality and history against an iconic design, rather than straightforward product placement,” explains Elsener. “The Victorinox knife is a sign of reliability, of trust and responsibility. In Switzerland we give a knife to a child as a right of passage, a sort of coming of age. But we teach them how to use it wisely. We teach them that while it can be very useful, it is sharp – and it cuts.”
The approach, which appears to have altered Japanese perception, struck a chord with the native population where the exhibit was hugely successful. Visitors came in droves – parents with children, young and old – and there are already plans to take it on a world tour. But it was also successful with Victorinox AG management, who realized that while one person’s perception does not always mirror another’s, it can bring about the transformation of both. Modesty appears to be a family legacy.
Victorinox AG is currently mapping out a collaboration with author Felix Immer in a sweeping gesture of cultural sustainability that addresses the way technology is affecting emerging generations. Immer wrote the best selling book, Couteau Suisse: techniques, applications et 26 projets concrets, which offers engaging step-by-step instructions on how to use a Swiss Army Knife safely, as well as colourfully illustrated pages on how to make beautiful things in the outdoors, from flutes and small boats to more complicated projects.
“We struggle with our children who want to spend their free-time on the Internet or other technologies, trying to encourage them to experience nature and do something with their hands that they can be proud of,” explains Elsener, a father of three children, with a gleam in his eye. “Many parents would like to see their children experiencing the kind of growing up that we did.”
Veronika, who is an active part of both corporate and family life, explains that the book is a testimony to the Swiss Army Knife as a tool, and future plans include bringing extracurricular courses to schools nationwide. The entire project equally falls in line with Japanese philosophy, and the result is diplomatic, corporate and cultural sustainability of the highest order.
“Both Switzerland and Japan need creative people for the future of our world,” he asserts. “We are excited about how our family company is contributing to that.”
When asked about the future trajectory of Victorinox AG, he says he’s committed to translating the values of the business to future generations. Its corporate culture, he asserts, is based on mutual trust and respect, gratitude, and humility. It opts for long-term sustainability through the building of economic reserves over short-term profit and exaggerated bonuses.
“I saw this first-hand with my father,” he says. “Under his leadership, company turnover went from 4 million to 400 million CHF. He knew that everyone plays an important role in the success of a business. And I believe that through a modest business model, we will have the reserves we need to ride out any difficult times ahead.”
The Ibach production facility – which produces all Swiss Army Knives and Kitchen Knives to this day – delivers 120,000 pieces daily. And though the brand has diversified to include timepieces, travel gear, fashion and fragrance, more than 50 percent of its output remains the brand’s signature knives.
A new flagship store is in the pipeline for Zurich’s upmarket Bahnhofstrasse, and in Japan some 30 brand stores already bear witness to Victorinox AG’s global influence. With refinement, precision and the importance of engineering a common ground, the future looks bright between Switzerland and Japan for, at least, another 150 years.
Article by Allison Zurfluh