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History of Laguiole
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PART 1. THE LAGUIOLE FOLDING KNIFE

 

1.1  THE MOST FAMOUS FRENCH KNIFE

France has a long tradition of knives. Today, among the most famous pocketknives we can find the Nontron (Dordogne), the Laguiole (Aveyron) and the Opinel (Savoie) for example. Nowadays, we love handmade products with historic and country flair.

Among pocketknives, the Laguiole knife is the most famous of all. The word Laguiole, name of a village in the middle of the Aveyron region of France, will ring a bell in every European mind and carries a reputation of quality. This fame, built on the old tradition of upscale and quality products today suffers from the industrialization of the production and from knock offs. Because of its prestigious image, the word LAGUIOLE by itself has great marketing appeal, and is widely used for that purpose. The name can be found in the French Dictionary, sanctioned by the Academy Francaise. That is how strongly rooted these knives are in French culture. The Laguiole knife has become a very trendy item, a collector’s hobby: what used to be a modest farmer’s knife has become a favorite baby boomer-city dweller’s knife. Born 168 years ago, it has benefited from a second youth that coincides with the return of the production to its cradle, the village of Laguiole in the Aveyron.

 

The French national press has testified to this extraordinary success with many articles dedicated to the Laguiole phenomena. In “Le Monde” (09/14/1991) a full page article titled “Laguiole returns to Laguiole”, Mr. J.L. Perrier explains that “the name Laguiole comes up in more people’s minds than in peoples hands, creating what economists call demand and advertising people image. In the “Nouvelle Obsservateur” (01/7-13/1993), B. Fraysse tells the story “of a new birth” in the article “Laguiole, the farmer from Paris”. Even in “Le Nouvel Economiste” (06/07/1994) we find another article dedicated to the same glory: “Sa Majesté des Surins” The knife has become increasingly popular since and we can find it in the weekly “VSD” (02/13-19/1997), in a four page article on the knives, “les couteaux se retrouvent du trenchant” (“A new sharpened edge for the knives”.) where Mr. J.C. Collin shows how “the knife has gained reference status”.

 

1.2  EXPORT INCENTIVE

LAGUIOLE fame is not confined to French borders; the Laguiole knife has crossed many borders. From Japan to the United States, Laguiole lovers have bought the famous knives. In the United Kingdom, an article in the “Financial Times” (03/03/1993) by D. Sexton raves” the prettiest of knives: a traditional French Shepard’s knife still made in the beautiful Aubrac mountains of the Aveyron.” In New York the knife has entered immortality when a design by Philip Stark was added to the collection of the Foundation of Contemporary Art (MOMA). Of course, the interest in the knife abroad cannot be as passionate as in France. However, with the great image of the quality of French Luxury Products and their success world wide, the success of export sales is easily explained. In comparison with e.g. the Swiss Army Knife, there is still an enormous market wide open.

 

1.3  CONFUSION AND KNOCK_OFFS, THE PRICE OF SUCCESS

Unfortunately, the fame of the Laguiole knife comes with confusion and misunderstanding concerning the product. In the mind of many, “Laguiole” is one single company that produces all the many knives, and they usually believe that the “bee” (decorative detail on the knife’s spring) guaranties the authenticity of a true Laguiole knife. In reality, “Laguiole”, apart from being the name of a village in Aveyron and of a cheese, is just the generic name of a folding knife. Besides, the name has never been patented nor protected in any way. As a result of this lack of legal protection and of the marketing appeal of the name, low quality knock offs are flooding the market. There are two main sites of production, the city of Thiers-French cutlery capital- where a total of about 70-80 companies produce Laguiole knives (craftsmen and industrials) and the village of Laguiole in Aveyron, where a handful of smiths and craftsmen produce the knives. This is where the original Calmels shop  (owned by G. Arbalete David, is located.

 

2. DESCRIPTION OF THE KNIFE, A MASTERPIECE OF CRAFTSMANSHIP

 

“They have a handle of horn made into a thin, elegantly undulating shape, and riveted on to a brass, which seeps to wrap around the pointed blade.” This description by D.Sexton in the article “Knives for the pure of heart”(Financial times, 1993) expands on the dictionary definition (Hachette Encyclopaedic Dictionary, 1998 Ed): “Couteau fermant à manche de corne et à lame effilée” (“folding knife with horn handle and blade”.

 

2.1 DIFFERENT MODELS

 

The traditional folding knives can be chosen according to different models. Each model can vary according to:

  • Blade Sizes: From 8 to 13 cm  (11/12 cm standard) app. 3-6”
  • Pieces: From 1-3 pieces (Blade, Cork Screw, Poincon or Piercer) and with one or two brass (or nowadays different steel finish) bolsters or without bolster
  • Handles: Either Horn (Pressed or Solid –pointe de corne- Cow Horn), wood (precious, Exotic, or European), marquetry, Bone, Stag Horn, or even fossilized mammoth ivory.

 

2.2 THE BLADE

 

It has a thin, elegant shape, with a slender and sharp end. The first knives used to be made with carbon steel blades. This steel ha the advantage of an easy and long lasting sharpening, but oxidizes and rusts. The stainless steel has now almost completely replaced carbon steel in this cutlery sector because some thirty years ago a European law prohibited the use of carbon steel for all kitchen knives in public use for reasons of health concern. Today, the stainless steel used is either of the type 440 (surgical) steel, which never rusts, and always stays shiny, with the disadvantage that it needs more regular sharpening preferably with a natural sharpening stone. Next, Sandvick  steel is now used, combining the advantages of stainless (surgical) and carbon steel.

 

2.3 THE HANDLE

 

The models with corkscrew have a women’s leg shaped design where the lower bolster represents a women’s shoe or boot. The handle is made out of two brass plates that will support the material of the handle that will be joined at either end by brass bolsters. This adds style but also gives strength to the blade. The handle is attached with brass rivets (positioned on one side to show a cross, the “Shepard’s rosary”.

The material first used for handles was the bone or stag horn because they were the sturdiest materials at the time. For some luxury models, ivory was used. Later, with the introduction of cattle in the Aubrac region, horn became the typical material used. But not just any horn was used. Only that of the race “AUBRAC”. There are two kinds of horn handles. The solid part of the tip of the horn (pointe de corne) is one,  and pressed horn, from the hollow part of the horn the second. The first has much nicer coloring and patterning, and finer structure, but is much more precious, since only one handle can be made from one horn.  Tip of horn is obviously much more expensive. The Hollow part of the horn is cut and pressed under heat, to come close but never fully reach the quality and durability of the solid part of the horn.

 

New materials are also used for the handles in modern day production, allowing fresh new colors and designs for easier marketing. Some of these materials are much more easy to work. All kinds of woods have hence become a nice alternative to the horn handles. In the range of European woods, we find e.g. Walnut, Olive Tree, Box, Yew, Juniper, and Holly. In the range of Exotic wood we find Ebony, Lemon Tree, Guaiacum, or rosewood. Ivory is still used. This material is not harvested from African animals, but from fossilized mammoth ivory preserved in Alaska’s ice.

 

2.4 THE MECHANISM OF THE SPRING

 

The system used is a forced safety lock, which stands between the safety catch and the flat spring. It needs a strong pressing by both hands (one on the blade, the other on the handle to prevent getting fingers caught when closing) than the dangerous, easy to close flat spring system. But the Laguiole is not a lock knife. There is no actual lock, the spring snaps crisply into place and feels quite safe for the fingers. When the blade is opened it is safely maintained in that position by the hook of the spring that clips into the blade. To open the knife, the pressure of hands on the hook pushes the blade out to lock it.

 

2.5 THE FLY OR BEE

 

The spring has on top a small triangular relief with the carving of a bee. There is no definitive explanation for the presence of the bee, it is just a decorative feature. Some legend has it that it’s origin comes from Napoleon I, who would have associated the people from AUBRAC with the imperial emblem of the bee because of there courage in battle (Clergean, 1992). Others will firmly state that the insect is not a bee but a fly, explaining that the knife is a farmer’s knife, and the farmers who made the knives replicated the flies that came with their cattle. Fly or bee, the controversy only romanticizes the image of Laguiole further. The first Laguiole knives were made not with the fly, or with different designs such as oak leaves, four leaf clover, Fleur de Lys, or man’s figurine, rose or Maltese Cross or no design at all. The style of this part of the spring was thus shaped according to the mood and inspiration of the artisan knife maker with great artistic freedom. The bee or fly nevertheless has become the signature of the Laguiole knife and is present on virtually every contemporary model. The connoisseur will distinguish between the common soldered bee, and the solidly forged bee, which is part of the spring. Indeed, with traditional craftsmanship the spring and bee are in this case forged by hand out of one piece of steel. It is self evident that the soldered bee is much easier and faster to make.

 

3. ONE CENTURY OF HISTORY

 

3.1             ORIGINS

Dictionaries give the following definition for “LAGUIOLE”: “country town in Aveyron, 1248 inhabitants. Cutlery. Ski (Petit Larousse, 1998) It is this village that gave its name to the famous knife, because it was born there some 168 years ago.  The village has been an important market place for the farmers of the surrounding beautiful plateau of Aubrac. The area is situated in a rural region of the South of France at the junction of three different departments, the Aveyron, the Cantal, and the Lozère.

The origins of the knife do not claim any science, and many theories and legends have probably been told around fireplaces during the tough winters of this region. There is however enough material available today to retrace the history of this old knife, for instance two book written by D. Crozes, dedicated to the Laguiole knife. (De Corne et d’acier: l épopée du couteau de Laguiole”, 1990, an “Le Laguiole, une lame de légende” (1996, Ed. du Rouergue, Rodez.

Born in 1829, the Laguiole knife has derived inspiration from various sources. The ancestors of the Laguiole knife were called in the local dialect or “patois” a “Capuchadou”. Farmers in Aveyron used this course dagger to cut bread or wood in the middle of the 19th century. It was composed of a thin fixed blade and a short wooden handle. Another inspirations believed to have come from the Spanish “Navaja”. The farmers used to cross into the Pyrenees Mountains to go and work in Catatonia fro the summer with their long saws since fieldwork did not require more hands at home. They probably brought back this Spanish knife, with its ring-like safety locks and its Turkish style blade (called “yatagan”

According to legend, it was the Aveyron born Jaques Calmels, son of an innkeeper from Laguiole village who invented the knife after an apprenticeship in cutlery production. The Laguiole knife was to replace the old “Capuchadou” In fact, the newly invented tool proved to be really convenient for the farmers’ use because it was adapted to their needs and particular tastes. The people of the rural Aubrac Plateau have found many uses for this knife in daily life.

Throughout its existence the Laguiole knife has had to adapt to its time and new demands. The first piece that was added to the traditional blade was the “poinçon, the piercer that was used to make holes in the horse harnesses or to pierce the paunch of sheep suffering from colic, to remove stones from horse’s shoes, or to cut horses hair. The corkscrew became poplar after 1880 with the emigration of poor farmers from Aveyron who would leave home to try and make a better living in Paris (first selling coal and wood, then opening bars and restaurants, still to be found in Paris today).

Calmel’s family had traditionally followed tradition of the village of Laguiole by making cheese, as well as by making knives. Up to a few years ago, his grandson, Pierre Calmels, was running the store. Connoisseurs recognize the names of Calmels, as well as others like Pages, Glandières, or Salettes,. Knives made by those well-known shops can reach very high prices in auction worldwide.

 

3.2              CULTURAL MEANING

As such an important part of the lives of the farmers in Aveyron as an every day companion, the Laguiole knife carries cultural importance. The sound made by the blade when one closes signified at the end of a meal that the head of the family had finished dinner and that the table could be cleaned. A boy received the Laguiole knife as a rite of page and age and entrance into manhood, becoming a source of pride for any man. Even today, carving the traditional round bread with a circular cut of the knife has considerable ceremonial significance.

Some rituals also exist: The true Laguiole lover never will let the blade hit the spring when closing, making sure to close it gently, respecting the proverb “resort silencieux vivra vieux”, (silent spring will live longer). Indeed the clattering of the blade ruins the edge of the blade and can alter the spring over time. Another symbolism still alive is to give a penny in return for receiving a knife to prevent the knife from cutting friendship’s ties (couper l’amitié).