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The Pocket Knife Picasso Used (& Why We Love Its Maker)

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If you’ve never thought about carrying a pocket knife, you’ve never met Opinel. The culty, cool, classic French brand will convince you to change your ways.

Opinel knives are straight out of the French Alps, and straight out of history (they’ve been around for over 125 years!). The iconic good looks of the pocket knife have remained mostly unchanged since their creation in 1890—a seriously sharp steel blade that tucks into a beautiful beechwood handle. Despite their cache and quality, they were made to be an affordable tool for farmers, and they’ve stayed that way. Here's why Opinel's knives are so darn practical, a brief history of the family-owned company, and four reasons we can't get enough of them.

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The iconic No. 8 pocket knife, hot off the assembly line.
The iconic No. 8 pocket knife, hot off the assembly line. Photo by Thierry Vallier

An Opinel knife is the most helpful thing you’ll ever carry in your pocket (because no one uses pennies anymore). Don’t believe us? Picture any of the following scenarios:

  • You’re on a picnic with your friends—a watermelon is lugged, but the bearer didn’t bring a way to cut it.
  • You’ve made it out of IKEA alive, with a mountain of boxes in tow. Now you’re home and you have nearly 1,000 taped seams to slash.
  • Having arrived at your adorable Airbnb, you’re ready to relax at the end of a long day of sightseeing with a bottle of wine. The owners of said Airbnb, however, only have a chef’s knife that hasn’t been used in 15 years and a lone 1/2 cup measuring cup in the kitchen drawer.

Imagine how effortlessly prepared you will appear to your friends, as you unsheath a classic Opinel knife (the No. 10, with built-in corkscrew), in all its wood-handled, stainless steel-bladed glory. They’ll definitely want to know where you got it.

Opinel No. 10 Corkscrew Folding Knife

Opinel No. 10 Corkscrew Folding Knife

$30
Opinel Essential Kitchen Knives Set

Opinel Essential Kitchen Knives Set

From $39
Opinel Le Petit Chef Knife Set

Opinel Le Petit Chef Knife Set

$49
Opinel Olive Wood Table Knives (Set of 4)

Opinel Olive Wood Table Knives (Set of 4)

$59

The classic numbered pocket knives are core to Opinel’s collection—the numbers correspond to different blade sizes, from smallest to largest, and originally numbered 1 to 12. Over the years, Opinel has expanded to include dozens of other tools to help you in the kitchen and the great outdoors.

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Aside from the No. 10 Corkscrew Folding Knife, we’re taken with their Essential Kitchen Knives Set, that has four handy tools for slicing, peeling, and scraping. The Le Petit Chef Knife Set is made especially for budding chefs, with real knives and safety guides to keep their fingers protected. And their Olive Wood Table Knives are a handsome touch for a steak night.

🌿 Skogens guld 🌿#kantareller#skåne#skogstur#skogensgull#svamp#opinel#sopp#skogensguld

A photo posted by Katarina (@katarinasverden) on

A quick search on Instagram using #opinel unearths the many, many ways people put these French knives to work.

They’re pictured as part of a decadent picnic spread, poised and ready to attack Manchego and salami. Tucked into a serious adventurer’s Appalachian Trail-ready pack. Reclining with a pile of freshly foraged wild mushrooms. Next to a flank of jambon, for some on-the-fly butchery. Cutting and coring a juicy honeydew melon.

I caught a train down to Circular Quay today and stumbled across a French market. I thought there's no time like the present to celebrate Bastille day (the present being three days late). I bought a few of my favourite French things and celebrated it stranded chef style with a picnic down by the water. After enjoying my feast I took a moment to think of all the people killed in the recent terror attacks. My heart goes out to every one in France. Lots of love from everyone here down under in Australia. Be strong. ❤️😔 #strandedchef #lerustique #france #france🇫🇷 #australia #lordhoweisland #opinel #picnic #bastilleday #sybney #nsw #destinationnsw #circularquay #now #frenchsaucisson #saucisson #yum #chef #food #bagett #squidink #squidinksausage #parkbench #park #waterfront #water @strandedchef

A photo posted by Dennis Tierney (@strandedchef) on

Even more telling are the number of posts about an Opinel that has been in a single family for years and years.

As Alex Delecroix, U.S. Brand Manager for Opinel, puts it, “Some people have had their Opinel knife for more than 50 years. It’s a family tool, that gets passed on from generation to generation.”


The History

The Opinels were blacksmiths spanning several generations, craftsmen who were known for making the sharpest farm tools in the tiny village of Albiez-le-Vieux, nestled into the French Alps. The gradual industrialization of France throughout the 19th century introduced new manufacturing techniques that began to make hand-performed metalwork less common.

Daniel Opinel poo-pooed the advent of this machine-driven work, but his son Josef, living up to the legacy of rebellious teens everywhere, was fascinated with these modern technologies. Josef began experimenting on his own time, eventually settling on a simple pocket knife to put into small-scale production. The Opinel knife was born!

Clockwise from left: Josef Opinel in 1929, with a giant version of his iconic pocket knife; A tear sheet from a 1936 Opinel catalouge; Josef's workshop in 1890 Photos by , Opinel

In the early 1900s the town of Chambery, just down the mountain from Josef’s village, was a busy freight hub. Josef gave train conductors his prototype (what is now the iconic Opinel No.8 knife) for free, in hopes that word of his name and his good craftsmanship would spread. It worked. Their booming commercial success led Josef to open the first Opinel factory in 1901 and production was quickly underway.

Opinel made its way to the United States in the 1940s after World War II—returning American soldiers brought with them the handy pocket knives they had acquired while overseas. Today, Opinel is still family-owned and family-operated from Chambery—they’re coming up on their fourth generation of Opinels in charge! Opinel knives are sold in more than 75 countries, and are starting to pop up in more and more stores across the U.S. (and right here at Food52!).

A worker puts together knives in the Opinel factory, 1930
A worker puts together knives in the Opinel factory, 1930 Photo by Opinel

Why We Heart Opinel

Opinel knives have a rich legacy, look great, and work even better. But there's even more to love about this company:

They care about their environmental footprint

90% of the wood used for Opinel knife handles comes from sustainable tree farms. Even better, the wood chips leftover from crafting the handles are vacuumed up and then used to heat the factory in the winter.

They have a great respect for the integrity of the tools they produce

Opinel doesn’t introduce a new knife or tool without exhaustive testing and research. The No. 12 Explorer knife, which is being released this July, underwent three and half years of development. The No. 9 oyster knife was the result of placing several prototypes into the hands of oyster farmers on the Western coast of France; their feedback informed the final design of the knife. “We are a small company, but we want to do things the right way,” Alex says.

When Opinel introduced a hand-pruner, many loyalists were worried that the company was straying too far from its roots. But, in reality, the design was emblematic of their dedication to excellence: Prototypes of handcrafted pruners and scissors that Josef had tinkered with were found among his things after he died.

They place great importance in their process

90% of Opinel’s knives are made in their factory in Chambery (the other 10% are plastic-handled knives made in Portugal). The steel sheets used for their blades are sourced from Sweden, from the number one cutlery supplier in the world. The machinery used to make Opinel knives was developed and designed by the company itself. This is atypical of the cutlery industry, and is a testament to their attention to detail and dedication to manufacturing the highest-quality product.

Their pocket knife is a design icon and has a cult following

Opinel has accumulated scores of accolades and acknowledgements over the years. The Victoria and Albert Museum named the Opinel No. 8 as one of the “100 most beautiful products in the world” (in good company with the Rolex watch and the Porsche 911!). Opinel knives have been exhibited and sold at the Museum of Modern Art.

The steel blade gets honed to the sharpest perfection.
The steel blade gets honed to the sharpest perfection. Photo by Thierry Vallier

And Pablo Picasso himself used an Opinel knife to carve his statues (the No. 5 knife, in case you’re wondering). The knives are so ubiquitous in France that in 1989, the word “opinel” was added into the French dictionary as the generic term for pocket knife (like kleenex or band-aid here in the States).


So, why are people so bonkers for Opinel? Alex put it best: “The iconic pocket knife is more than a knife. It’s a conversation starter. It’s slight, it’s packable, it’s affordable. You just want to keep it. It represents something cool. You are carrying a piece of history.”

You can find all our Opinel knives here in the Shop.

Tags: Opinel, knives, maker story, kitchen knives