Blacksmiths from father to son
Victor-Amédée Opinel who was a peddler, learnt how to forge nails during his travels. He set up his first blacksmith workshop in Gevoudaz, a hamlet part of Albiez-le-Vieux, near Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne. His son Daniel later worked alongside his father and took over the workshop when he died. He then became a renowned “edgetool maker”* among farmers who came from afar to buy his billhooks or sickles...
* "edgetool maker": Maker of sharp tools
Birth of Joseph Opinel
Joseph Opinel is Daniel Opinel’s eldest son. He was born in 1872 in Gevoudaz, a hamlet of Albiez-le-Vieux. Joseph has two brothers, Jean (1877-1943) and Albert (1885-1905) as well as 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, King Charles IX of France ordered each master cutler to add his emblem to his products to guarantee their origin and quality. To follow this tradition, Joseph chose the Crowned Hand emblem in 1909. The blessing hand is that of Saint Jean-Baptiste appearing on the arms of Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne, the town closest to Albiez-le-Vieux, home of the Opinel family. Joseph Opinel added the crown as a reminder that the Savoie was a duchy. Since, every single Opinel blade and tool is stamped with the Crowned Hand.
The Alpine International Exhibition in Turin
In 1911, Joseph Opinel took part in the Alpine International Exhibition in Turin. For the occasion, he got made a beautiful carved wood display case in which he presented his famous pocket knife in its twelve different sizes, but also the expanded collection of table and kitchen knives, razors, scissors, cheese borers, pruning knives and corkscrews. Bowled over and visibly impressed, the jury gave him the gold medal!
The 1911 display case is now on show at the Opinel company headquarters, the diploma is carefully stored in our archives.
The big move!
Joseph soon 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. Mules were used to move the factory from Gevoudaz to Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne. The move continued by train to reach Chambery. 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.
Wood chips produced during the shaping of the wooden handles 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 oil every year. In January 1926, a wood-burning stove which had been badly put out started a fire which destroyed the entire building. The Opinel family dealt with this disaster and decided to build new modern premises better suited for their production.
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 2013, the “shell ring” workshop, the last still in activity, was moved to the Chambery site.
In 1950, Maurice joined his father in the factory. From the age of 23, he spent his first years in the factory assisting his uncle, Léon, who was in charge of marketing and administration. Marcel, as his father before him, loved machinery and was in charge of workshops and production. At that time, the factory employed over fifty people. Maurice Opinel passed away on 17th august 2016. Nowadays, his son Denis Opinel is the managing director of the company.
Invention of the Virobloc
At first, the Opinel knife had four components: the blade, the handle, the shell ring and the rivet. The shell ring was needed to firmly rivet the blade to the handle.
In 1955, Marcel Opinel, wanting to improve the safety of the knife, invented the Virobloc® system. He added a rotating lock which slides on the shell ring, closing the groove and therefore locking the blade in its open position. This is a simple idea but with a complex implementation.
In the 90s, the Virobloc® system was modified to allow the blade to be locked in its closed position. At first, it was only used on a few references, but by the year 2000, it was added to every Opinel knife.
Death of Joseph Opinel
The 29th of January is cursed for the Opinel family. On the 29th of January 1926, a fire destroyed the first factory in Cognin. On the same day in 1960, Joseph Opinel died aged 88, after having worked all his life in his factory. And thirty years after his father, Marcel Opinel died on the 29th of January 1990.
The new Chambery site
The prosperity following the war increased the demand and at the beginning of the 70s, the factory was cramped on Cognin's main street on the outskirts of Chambery. It was then decided to build a new, larger modern production site a few kilometres away on an industrial estate in Chambery, at La Revériaz. At first, it was dedicated to wood working, assembly and conditioning activities, it became the main site and headquarters of the business in 2003.
Opinel: a design icon
The Opinel is a popular object used on a daily basis. Its aesthetics and functionality have convinced several generations of users. Unchanged for over a century, its design is one of the most successful of all times. For this reason, Opinel is recognised by the “Victoria and Albert Museum” as being among the 100 best designs. This list includes the Porsche 911 and the Rolex watch.
Opinel is in the dictionary
Opinel is part of the French cultural heritage and is named in several publications. En 1989, it is referenced in the Larousse dictionary, alongside Bic, Frigidaire or Solex as a proprietary name with the following definition: Folding knife with a wooden handle bearing a groove into which is inserted the blade 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.
New head office
To facilitate production flows and exchanges within the company, it was decided to gather all business activities in on single site. To do so, headquarters were moved from Cognin to La Revériaz in 2003. A new building was constructed alongside the existing workshops. The Opinel buildings at 508 boulevard Henry Bordeaux in Chambery now cover a 5000-m² area.
Cooking with Opinel
To celebrate the 150 year anniversary of the French Savoie, Opinel published the “La cuisine à l’Opinel” (Cooking with Opinel) cookery book. A real gourmet’s journey in Opinel's native land: portraits and recipes by 25 Michelin-starred chefs from Savoie, Haute-Savoie, Piedmont and the Nice country, including fascinating anecdotes on the history of Savoie’s gastronomy written by Annie Victor and illustrated by the photographs of Anthony Cottarel. The book received the 1st prize in the Gourmand World Cookbook Awards 2009, in the Best Corporate Book in France category (published by the Editions Lagon Rouge, out of print).
The Opinel museum
In 1989, with the permission of the Opinel Company, Jacques Opinel turned his grandfather Jean’s workshop into a museum. Jean was Joseph Opinel’s brother and also a blacksmith and edgetool maker. The Opinel museum is located in Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne and rapidly became one of the first sites visited in Savoie. In 2013, it was renovated and extended by the Opinel Company together with Jacques Opinel and his son Maxime. This private free museum traces the history of Opinel®. There, you will discover the Opinel’s family and Savoyard origins, as well as the modifications to the manufacturing processes and the technical and commercial development of the brand. The visit concludes with a film made on the workshops and describing the current manufacturing processes. Read more
The Opinel story
It took till 2014 for Opinel to finally tell its story: a family saga and its extraordinary destiny. This 160-page book was written by the author and journalist Jean-François Mesplède, former director of the Guide Michelin France. 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 archives and photographs by Thierry Vallier. (Editions Page d’Ecriture, €25).
Spring 2016, the company open its first international subsidiary. Based in Chicago, OPINEL USA will distribute and develop the brand in the United States.