To this day, there is a village called Albiez-le-Vieux in Maurinne, in what used to be known as the Savoy. Savoy is in the Western Alps between Lake Geneva and Dauphiné, and in the 16th century it occupied a portion of what is now Italy. The region has a long story of strategic and geographical importance for the Roman Empire and the French Republic; up until the 14th century it was the territory of the House of Savoy, which was the most venerable royal house in all of Europe and a portion of Savoy was eventually annexed by France in 1890. In modern France, Savoy is part of the Rhône-Alpes region.
What Albiez-le-Vieux looks like today
I don’t know a lot about the history of France beyond the obvious things they teach American children in school, which consists primarily of Bastille Day and how the French saved our asses from the British and then sold us the flyover states for $USD 15M ((A pretty tidy sum compared to some of our country’s other acquisitions involving beads and broken promises)). I attempted to learn some of the history of this corner of the world recently and hopefully I managed to condense it without getting all of the details wrong; there are a lot of moving parts when it comes to French history, and so much of it is connected with that occured here in the United States that it’s really a fascinating rabbit hole to dig even for someone like myself with the attention span of a toddler.
Many years after the American Revolutionary War, there was war in France. There were several revolutions occurring across Europe, but it was the class struggles leading up to the 1848 Revolution ((révolution de Février — the petite bourgeois and labor interests aligned momentarily)), that lead to the creation of a provisional government established by labor and the petite bourgeois, only to see labor edged out and marginalized. The working classes were dissatisfied with the participation given in the new Government ((They were of the opinion that all sections and classes in their society were entitled to the same representation)), and took to the streets to ensure their demands were heard. The property owner class (finance bourgeoisie, industrial bourgeoisie and petite bourgeoisie), became fearful of losing their control and influence. They turned on their former allies the workers, and moved to suppress a labor uprising. This didn’t help matters at all, especially for the petite bourgeoisie who were already in a strained economic position to begin with and who were now all but exhausted after accumulating vast debts to stay in business, thousands of whom couldn’t pay their rent on shops since February.
The worker’s revolt of the June Days was put down, but ultimately that proved to be the beginning of the end of the 1848 Revolution and Second Republic ((The business owners themselves were given a stay of execution by financiers who stalled collecting back rent and debts only to turn on small business once things had stabilized after the June Days. Sound familiar?)) In 1851, a coup by Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte occurred, seizing control of France, and it was during this coup that Savoy was briefly held by the French Second Republic forces. The French Second Republic dispatched Corps from Lyons and invaded the capital of Savoy (Chambéry), and once word got to the people of Savoy living outside the capital, they converged on Chambéry and chased out the Corps. Quite mercilessly from what I read.
In 1890, Savoy joined France, and so that is where we truly begin this story; with Joseph Opinel creating a folding knife in twelve sizes, each numbered one through twelve.
Joseph Opinel was the son and grandson of an edged tools maker. In those three generations his family spanned revolution, war, and their home has changed hands by declaration of treaty. Three generations of Opinel smiths working forges, a family tradition that miraculously survives to this day.
Thirty years later, Joseph Opinel registered a trademark for his cutlery, and following the old tradition established by King Charles IX, begins stamping his blades with an emblem of a crowned hand. ((The hand signifies the blessing of St Jean Baptiste, with three fingers raised and two folded downward. It also appears on the coat of arms of St Jean de Maurienne. The crown exists as a reminder of the old Duchy of Savoy, and I interpret the entirity of this emblem as being a not-so-subtle reminder that Joseph Opinel considered himself a Savoyard, even though at the time this was apparently a pejorative. That is to say, I suspect today Joseph Opinel may, while sitting on the steps of his cottage and sipping from a bottle of cognac, refer to the prepostorous utterance of a friend with an incredulous “Savoyard, s’il vous plaît!”))
From there it’s a whirlwind — local shops and door-to-door sales establish the brand two years later and bring his knives to Italy and Switzerland in two more. By 1920 he moves production to Chambéry, and in 1939 he has sold 20 million of his knives. The only real design change occurs in 1955, when the “virobloc” safety ring is added to the knives in order to lock the blade in the open position. It doesn’t change again until 2000 when the virobloc mechanism is changed to also allow the blade to be locked in the folded position. And that’s it. From 1890 to 2013. A mere five pieces are used to assemble the Opinel Classic.
The Opinel knives were trusted tools for Pablo Picasso, who used them to carve his sculptures. There are also noteworthy alpine guides, mountaineers, sailors and yachtsman who also carried an Opinel over mountains and across seas, and many chefs use Opinel cutlery in their kitchens and gardens as well.
Joseph Opinel himself managed the company up until 1960 with the help of his sons. In 1974 his grandson and great-grandson took the helm keeping this tradition in their family across four generations now; totalling six generations of craftsman. Several other families of knives made by Opinel come into their catalog, but the Classic model is the one that has spanned all of these generations.
It was three weeks ago when I saw Patrick Rhone mention Bespoke Post in a post on app.net. After checking out Bespoke Post a bit, I saw one of their shipments included a really beautiful knife made by Opinel called the Classic, and shortly afterward I was on Opinel USA‘s website and was completely shocked at how affordable ((a No. 8 with a beech handle will cost you less than USD$30)) these beautiful knives were. They are practical, minimal, and timeless. I quickly ordered one for myself, as well as a filet knife for my father that I later gave him on my recent fishing trip.
This is my No. 8 (Classic) by Opinel, in walnut:
Opinel’s Classic line of folding knives are not tactical flashy knives with rivets, drilled holes and aggressive styling. They are not built for an imaginary knife fight with a Taliban warlord or defending yourself against rogues in an alley. They are, however, unquestionably beautiful tools that are quite clearly purpose-built for people that use knives. They have an iconic design that has served as a symbol of a life in the French countryside, and a simpler time where hand-made tools were commonplace. It was heralded as a design masterpiece by MOMA New York in 1985, joining works of art like chairs designed by Eames.
The weight of the No. 8 is barely noticeable in your pocket and it feels featherlight in your hand. The blades can be made in carbon steel or stainless steel and I chose stainless mainly due to the minimal maintainence required. There is some slight flexing in the stainless blade that I think would be more obvious in larger lengths beyond the No. 8. The fact that it doesn’t require regular care to stay sharp and shiny more than compensates for this in my opinion. If you’re the kind of person that doesn’t mind performing regular cleaning, drying, and generally being vigilant for corrosion, the carbon blade is going to hold an edge better and be stronger.
That isn’t to say the stainless blade is weak or gets dull quickly. I sharpened it before a trip and used it play at carving pieces of stray wood, opening packages, cutting lines and rope on a boat while fishing, and then slicing fruits and vegetables with ease and precision.
Engraving is an option from Opinel at the time of ordering, and it doesn’t add a delay to your order at all. I placed my order for two knives, both with engraving, and they still shipped the same day. I went the Game of Thrones route with mine, and gave it a name. It’s a small sharp thing that fits in my hand, so I used the French word for claw.
The Opinel Classic would be a bargain at twice the price. It is delightfully simple, timeless, reliable and exceptionally lightweight. It is likely to be a reliable tool for the rest of my life, and those are the kinds of purchases I rarely regret.