Essential Tools

This Classic French Knife Is Made by a Single Craftsman

November 21, 2017

You might recognize Laguiole en Aubrac by the distinctive bee where the handle meets the blade; you might know and love its knives for the perfectly formed, so-nice-to-grip handles, or the super sharp blades, or the classic designs. If you don't know Laguiole en Aubrac, then allow us to introduce one of our favorite knife-makers in the whole world.

Since 1828, Laguiole en Aubrac has been handcrafting some of the most exquisite knives we've ever seen. The company started with its classic folding knife, which is composed of an astounding 147 pieces, then in 1880 began to make corkscrews to accommodate the rise of brasseries and restaurants opening in Paris. The award-winning knives saw a dip in production in the middle of the 20th century (the two World Wars emptied Aubrac of its male workforce, and local production was no longer possible). But in 1987, following the initiative of local officials, cutlery activity in Laguiole was renewed. By 1997, around 800,000 Laguiole knives were being manufactured every year—from cheese knives to kitchen knives to carving sets and grilling tools.

To learn more about the company and how it makes its incredible products, we spoke with Philippe Lassiaille, Laguiole en Aubrac's export director for the last 25 years.

SARAH WHITMAN-SALKIN: What makes Laguiole en Aubrac knives different from other handmade knives on the market?

PHILIPPE LASSIAILLE: The Laguiole knife is part of the French tradition. We've been making these knives since 1828, and we use the same traditional methods of production now that we used back then: The machine we use to forge the blades is over 100 years old. In France today there aren't very many handmade pocket knives being produced, and we maintain the tradition. Each knife is handmade by a single cutler, a local craftsman. We have no inventory; each knife is made to order. By doing it like this we propose unique pieces, which can be signed by the artisan. Others workshops prefer to split the job because it is more profitable, but the final result cannot be the same—behind the products you will find a company, but not an artist. We are artists.

SWS: How do you find the craftsmen who make the knives?

PL: In our area, there is no big factory: There are farmers and there are knife-makers. We train our newer craftsmen for a period of few years, and have them apprentice under an experienced craftsman who transmits his know-how. We have about 40 craftsmen who are working with us. Of those, there are maybe 10 that have true artistic imagination. It takes time for younger knife-makers to become exceptional. The real difficulty is in keeping these persons after few years when they have become experienced: Most of them try to set up their own workshop. Honestly, it is very difficult to find and employ the craftsmen we work with.

SWS: Where do you source your materials from? The wood, the steel, etc.?

PL: The stainless steel used for our production is Sandvik from Sweden. We try and source most of our wood and horn for our knife handles locally—we have relationships with the people who are growing wood in our area, and the juniper, pear, cherry, apple, and prune wood all come from our area. The strong demand for exotic products has forced us to search for new handle materials, and we are now using more than 50 different species of wood and other materials. We work with specialty importers who make sure that the wood is harvested and imported legally. Recently, at a show in Paris, we met a person importing mammoth ivory; now we're offering a limited edition of knives with handles made with this mammoth ivory, which is over 10,000 years old.

SWS: The Laguiole bee is so iconic. How did the bee come to be on the spring plate?

PL: The bee is the symbol of the Laguiole knife. Our local legend says that this bee was the imperial seal of Napoleon, which he offered to the city of Laguiole in recognition of the bravery in combat of men from our village. It may be a myth, but it's a nice legend.

SWS: How do you decide what types of knives to introduce? For example, how did you decide to begin making a Champagne saber?

PL: We are listening to the demands from our customers. We are making the knives our customers want. Twenty five years ago I was doing the New York gift show; I was in the handmade section and I was maybe the only one promoting Laguiole. But year after year others took interest, and more people came to know about Laguiole knives. They’re old but they look modern.

In terms of the saber, the practice of sabering Champagne dates back to the 19th century and to the hussars of the Napoleonic guard. These hussars, when returning from battle, wanted to pay a vibrant tribute to the victory in front of the ladies, to impress them. So they blew the cap off the bottle by making a spectacular and masterful gesture—sabering the bottle. This practice is still in use during wedding or special events. Consequently, Laguiole has decided to reproduce this object remembering this old time.

SWS: What is your favorite knife?

PL: Personally, I love the most simple ones very much. I use a pocket knife with a 12-centimeter blade, double plates, with a solid horn handle. It's very beautiful.

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