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How The Swiss Army Knife Survived 9/11

It can get you out of a jam and open wine, but the iconic multi-use companion narrowly escaped collapse after the War on Terror made it suddenly hard to carry everywhere.

26 million Victorix pocket knives are sold every year
26 million Victorix pocket knives are sold every year
Wolfgang Koydl

IBACH - The corkscrew on the legendary Swiss Army Knife is regarded as one of the most essential parts of the product. But it was also the one that gave its makers the most headaches in the beginning.

Because unlike blades, scissors, can-openers or magnifying glasses, its rounded spirals didn’t fit neatly into the construction. Beyond that, the metal had to be forged — a process that, suitably enough, was done in France, home of great wines in traditional corked bottles.

All of this makes the corkscrew the only exotic aspect of an otherwise entirely Swiss product, which has a brand recognition value around the world comparable to industry icons such as Coca-Cola, Nike or Apple.

Bright red with a luminous white cross, the jackknife with the innumerable functions embodies the values of the Swiss Confederation.

"The pocket knife is a symbol of Swiss quality and dependability," says Carl Elsener Jr., fourth-generation CEO of the family-run company Victorinox that makes the knives.

Every day, the company located in the small town of Ibach in central Switzerland ships some 120,000 of its knives. That's 26 million a year, and not only are they found on every continent in the world, but they have also traveled to outer space. Swiss pocket knives were among the basic tools accompanying every space shuttle mission.

Comes in all shapes and sizes - Photo: Jim Pennucci

And yet the market is by no means saturated. There are, after all, 350 different models from which to choose, ranging from the no-frills standard knife to the Swisschamp with 33 functions, including linesman’s pliers and a chisel. As it is for other companies, China is a huge growth market for Victorinox. "Imagine if we could sell a knife to every single Chinese!" Elsener says with a dreamy smile. "And then of course there are all the knives that people lose and that have to be replaced."

Elsener’s great-grandfather Karl started out in Ibach as a self-employed cutler 129 years ago. Seven years later, in 1891, he landed a major contract with the Swiss army to deliver a soldier’s knife he had developed. It went on to become the world-famous Swiss Army Knife, and it overshadowed the market for the many household and professional knifes that Victorinox produced.

The post 9/11 business plummet

But the success story escaped an abrupt and catastrophic end by just a hair. "Our company has never been as hard-hit as it was by the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks in New York and Washington," the 55-year-old Elsener says. Almost overnight, after sharp objects were prohibited on airplanes, sales of the fireman-red knives — which had been a duty-free staple in airport stores and on flights — collapsed.

"We lost over 40% of our business,", Elsener recalls. "Airports sent vast quantities of the knife back to us." He is proud to this day that the company was able to absorb the losses without firing a single employee. "Jobs have always been a main focus for us," he says. "We really do see ourselves as a big family, in good times and bad."

One of the creative ways the company saved jobs was to "loan" Victorinox workers to other businesses in the area. At the same time, Victorinox strengthened the focus on its other products — traditional household knives along with the Swiss Army watches and luggage that Victorinox started producing in 1989 and 1999, respectively.

Photo: Thinh H

"By its very definition, you don’t see a pocket knife — it’s in your pocket," Elsener says wryly. Shortly before 9/11, Victorinox had launched a line of leisure wear, and after the 2005 take-over of its competitor Wenger, which also makes Swiss knives, Victorinox introduced a fragrance line too.

Victorinox also overcame that turbulent period by having embraced virtues over the years that may sound old-fashioned today — "saving for a rainy day," for example. "We always had reserves," Elsener says. The company is now on a path of what he characterizes as "organic" growth. "We don’t want to soar up like a rocket because what goes up fast comes down fast," the CEO says. The current economic crisis has brought the company’s workers and management together.

But perhaps the greatest reason for Victorinox’s success is its unique structure. The Elsener family has long since given up all ownership. Ninety percent of the shares are in a company foundation with the remaining 10% of the capital invested in a charity foundation. Profits down to the last cent are reinvested in the company.

Given those circumstances, it’s no surprise that Elsener offers an sympathetic smile at talk of all the radical attempts to keep executive remuneration in the United States and Europe in check. He is paid only about six times the salary of the lowest-wage worker in the company.

"This isn’t some kind of adaptation to current trends. It was always like that here," he says. "Company management shouldn’t be so self-important." And they should also never be without their "faithful companion" — even if it is only to open a bottle of wine, should the occasion arise.

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Society

Dutch Cities Have Been Secretly Probing Mosques Since 2013

Revelations of a nationally funded clandestine operation within 10 municipalities in the Netherlands to keep tabs on mosques and Muslim organizations after a rise in radicalization eight years ago.

The Nasser mosque in Veenendaal, one of the mosques reportedly surveilled

Meike Eijsberg

At least ten Dutch towns and cities have secretly used a private agency to probe mosques and other local religious organizations, Amsterdam-based daily het NRC reports in an exclusive investigation.

The clandestine operation — funded by NCTV, the National Security Services, the Netherlands' leading counter-terrorism agency — was prompted by the social unrest and uncertainty following multiple terror attacks in 2013, and a rise in Islamic radicalization.


The NCTV, which advises and financially supports municipalities in countering radicalization, put the municipalities in touch with Nuance by Training and Advice (Nuance door Trainingen en Advies, NTA), a private research agency based in Deventer, Netherlands. Among the institutions targeted by the investigations, which came at a cost of circa 500,000 euros, were the Al Mouahidin mosque in the central Dutch town of Ede, and the Nasser mosque east of the city of Utrecht, according to NRC.

Photo of people standing on prayer mats inside a Dutch mosque

Praying inside a Dutch mosque.

Hollandse-Hoogte/ZUMA

Broken trust in Islamic community

Unlike public officials, the private agency can enter the mosques to clandestinely research the situation. In this case, the agents observed activity, talk to visitors, administrators, and religious leaders, and investigated what they do and say on social media.

All findings then wound up in a secret report which includes personal details about what the administrators and teachers studied, who their relatives are, with whom they argued, and how often they had contact with authorities in foreign countries, like Morocco.

Leaders of the Muslim organizations that were secretly probed say they feel betrayed.

It is unclear whether the practice is legal, which is why several members of the Dutch Parliament are now demanding clarification from the outgoing Minister of Justice and Security, Ferd Grapperhaus, who is said to be involved.

"The ease with which the government violates (fundamental) rights when it comes to Islam or Muslims is shocking," Stephan van Baarle, member of the leftist party DENK, told De Volkskrant, another Dutch newspaper.

Leaders of the Muslim organizations that were secretly probed say they feel betrayed. Hassan Saidi, director of one of the mosques investigated, said that the relationship with the local municipality had been good. "This puts a huge dent in the trust I'd had in the municipality," he told the Dutch public broadcaster NOS.

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