Travel to the rolling landscapes of rural France and ask any local man therein if he has a pocket knife. He will invariably reach into his pocket and extract a weathered and well used Opinel No. 8. When I lived in rural France in my mid 20’s I felt I had finally integrated into the local culture when I sauntered into the nearest Tabac and purchased my very own Opinel knife. If memory serves I paid all of 80 francs for it, or less than $15.00.
The Opinel pocket knife has been the preferred knife of working Frenchman for over a century. Founded in 1890 in the Savoie region of France, Joseph Opinel set out to create a simple and affordable knife for farmers, vignerons, and herdsmen. Seven years after opening his business, he had a complete line of knives available in 12 sizes. Not just a skilled craftsman, he was a savvy businessmen and by the turn of the century began marketing his knives heavily to the rail workers of Chambery. They in turn took their knives to the far reaches of France creating a widespread demand for Opinel products. By the start of WWII, more than 20 million Opinel knives had been sold in Europe. Descendants of Joseph Opinel continue to pilot the company and oversee every detail of the 15 million knives they make each year.
The classic Opinel is, and will always be, the No. 8. With a blade just a shade over 3” long, it fits within the palm of a man’s hand. That has long been the measure of a legal length blade in France. With a beechwood handle and a XC90 high carbon steel blade, an Opinel is an uncomplicated product. A twisting locking mechanism at the hinge keeps the blade secured in the open or closed position. Simplicity defines the Opinel, although new iterations now include a stainless steel blade and exotic materials for the handle. Those knives are considerably more expensive, and to many Opinel aficionados are not the genuine article. That honor goes to the No. 8, which still sells for less than $15.00.