The name Opinel is synonymous with the small wooden-handled blades from the French region of Savoie. Joseph Opinel took on the family tradition earnestly, coming to work at his father’s edge and cutting tool workshop in 1890, and soon launched an icon. The Opinels had been making metal with a blue-collar purpose since Victor-Amédée Opinel began forging nails and established a workshop back in 1800 in Gevoudaz, a tiny hamlet in Albiez-le-Vieux (now an area prized for skiing). Joseph’s father Daniel took over and became renowned by the local farmers for his production of farming hand tools, sickles and billhook knives, tools that made the hard work of farming in the high alpine region just a bit easier.
When Joseph joined his father’s workshop as the third generation, he was drawn towards innovation and specialization. His father Daniel (and grandfather before him) though had developed a reputation for making whatever farmers needed by hand, based on tradition. And like many father and son enterprises, there was friction between the way things had always been done, and a new youthful exuberance. Joseph’s appreciation of modern technology rubbed against the family approach to hand crafting traditional farming tools. Joseph though had a keen eye for tinkering and technology, building his own camera and becoming a photographer of weddings and other civic events on the side.
On his own, Joseph began tooling away on the concept of a manufactured knife, a small pocket knife to start; with that, the legendary Opinel brand was born. France, in particular the south of France, has a long history and tradition of knife making and use. The folding blade knives from Spanish Andalusia date to pre-Roman times and they were a strong influence among shepherds and farmers of the Laguiole knives of southern France. The Opinel was a new knife, modern, but built of French tradition. The original Opinel lineup consisted of 12 different sizes (for different hand sizes, and different uses), all folding blade knives, with a simple wooden handle that has become a long lasting design darling, and an icon of the brand.
The utility of Joseph’s new range of Opinel knives made them wildly popular and the relatively quick manufacturing of the handles, powered by a hydraulic turbine, meant that Opinel could produce them rapidly enough to meet burgeoning demand. The popularity continued, and in 1915, the Opinel production facility was moved to the larger alpine town of Chambéry, where it remains to this day.
The modernization of the Opinel brand, to include higher-end kitchen knives, and specialized blades for oysters or mushrooms, is an adaptation of the ethic that Joseph brought to the family atelier back in 1890—innovate always. Despite diversification, the classic folding design is still a mainstay of the name, and using an Opinel is a nod to both style and utility.
In the original route for the 2020 Tour de France, the peloton was to pass near the Opinel roundabout in Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne (the route has since shifted). To celebrate, the brand and Le Tour de France have collaborated on the Opinel commemorative knife: 2020 Tour de France No.08 Folding Knife – Echelon. The number 08 is the most iconic and adaptable size of the Opinel range. Made from 12C27 Stainless Steel, the 3.28-inch blade tucks into a hornbeam handle with a peloton in echelon formation dyed into the handle. $45; opinel-usa.com