It would take more than 100 years after the 1884 original founding of the company that would become Victorinox for the “Swiss Army knife company” make its first wristwatch. That was in 1989, and it began a substantial legacy of watchmaking for the traditional Swiss company which, for most of its existence, was almost exclusively a knife maker. As someone who has never been far from a trusty Swiss Army pocket knife since I got my first one as a child, I didn’t really know too much about the company’s history until recently. After years of working closely with Victorinox and surveying the trajectory of its timepiece division, I was invited to visit the two major Victorinox facilities (in Ibach and Delemont, Switzerland) where the brand’s pocket knives/cutlery and timepieces are produced.

The famous pocket knife company name is a combination of the name “Victoria” (who was the mother of Carl Elsener who founded the firm), and “inox,” which (since the early 20th century) is an international term for stainless steel. Four generations of Carl Elseners have run the company thus far, and it’s is set up to eventually see a fifth Carl Elsener in place as the head of the company. Victorinox is still family-owned, and since the year 2000, has been managed by the “Victorinox Foundation.” The goal of this managerial shift was to prevent major changes in how the company is run or owned while protecting strong investments in a long-term business strategy as well as deep and ongoing investments to the community (which essentially means the protection of Victorinox as a strong and highly local employer). Victorinox as a company has existed and survived through multiple major global events and conflicts, including a number of wars and economic downturns. Victorinox has also been forced to weather other business environments complications such as the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the United States, which led to a severe decline in both travel and the ability for travelers to carry pocket knives on their person while flying. In each of these situations, Victorinox persisted, in large part due to conservative spending practices (save money in good times and invest in hard times), as well as the company’s insistence on having over a year’s worth of spare parts and materials at any given time. Doing this leaves Victorinox far less exposed to spikes in materials and commodity costs, as well as labor interruptions. All of these policies were learned by a cautious yet highly disciplined tool-making firm selling products in nearly all corners of the world. Much of this history and context is hard to wrap your mind around when visiting Victorinox’s picturesque headquarters located in agrarian Switzerland, not far from the larger city of Zurich.

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What truly impressed me about Victorinox is that compared to many (if not most) of the Swiss companies I follow, Victorinox is a value leader in its marketplace segment. Very few Swiss Made watch companies the aBlogtoWatch team visits can faithfully claim to make one of the best-quality and best-priced products on the market. Victorinox, on the other hand might be involved in a competitive watchmaking landscape, but its knives and cutlery are in most regards bested by no one else for the money. I saw how the company’s famous Swiss Army pocket knives and kitchen cutlery are produced using precision artisanal craftsmanship (combined with clever mass-production techniques), and yet their prices are middle-of-the-road (at the most) in most of the knife segments. Sure there are more expensive hobbyist knives out there at much higher prices, but for a mainstream tool product in a folding multi-tool, no one really beats Victorinox. This goes especially for the core pocket knife products, which come in a dizzying array of colors, styles, and purposes.

According to Victorinox, about 70% of its total sales come from a combination of pocket knives and cutlery. Their other product divisions currently include travel gear/luggage, fragrances (a very small division) and timepieces. The sale of wristwatches accounts for about 10% of the company’s total performance and while Victorinox wants to grow the sector, it is in no rush about it. Like many long-term-minded Swiss companies, Victorinox is more motivated by stability and quality, as opposed to speed and perception. Even though watches are only about 10% of what the company sells, you’d imagine it was a lot higher given the amount of space that Victorinox dedicates to its wristwatch production, as well as how passionate their team is about watches. After purchasing competitor Wenger (a fellow Swiss company that for many years competed head-to-head with Victorinox) in 2005, the former Wenger facility in Delemont, Switzerland was transformed into where Victorinox produces watches. A very good question to ask is exactly what parts of the watches does Victorinox itself make, how well-priced are they, and how “Swiss Made” are these Swiss watches?

To answer the latter question: quite Swiss Made, indeed, beating the Swiss government’s official rules of the carefully regulated moniker. Among the many “Swiss Made” products out there, few can claim to have over 90% of the parts of their watches made in Switzerland. Victorinox does not produce all parts for its watches, but does make the cases, assembles, and tests all of its watches in-house. A glimpse into the complicated testing regimen Victorinox developed for its timepieces began in 2014 when Victorinox first released the now iconic INOX timepiece collection. The idea behind INOX was to provide the market with an affordable and attractive Swiss Made watch that could withstand a long list of environmental and chemical stresses. Victorinox developed over 130 tests that INOX watches needed to pass, and each timepiece today is individually tested in a number of ways before finding its way on to a customer’s wrist. The 300-meter dive watches, for example, are each individually air pressure and water pressure tested, all at prices around or under $1,500 USD. INOX watches began as quartz-based time-only watches, but the collection has blossomed into including not only men’s and women’s watches, but also including quartz as well as mechanical movements. Victorinox currently acquires its movements from Ronda (quartz) and Sellita (mechanical) in Switzerland.

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Victorinox is an expert in steel, and it thus makes sense that the stainless steel, titanium, and carbon watch cases are all machined in-house. Victorinox likes to purchase materials from other Swiss companies when possible (such as carbon), but sources the best materials it can, such as steel from Sweden, where most of Europe’s better steel alloy comes from. The watch cases are industrially produced and finished by hand, even at these affordable prices. The reality is that a human polishing a steel case results in a far better outcome than if a machine does it. You can really tell that even though Victorinox likes to automate and speed up manufacturing tasks with modern technology, there is still a deep reverence for craftsmanship and supporting human workers. Victorinox is not only celebrated as one of the best places to work in Switzerland, but it’s also the largest private employer in the canton in which it operates. With 140 years of experience, Victorinox is one of the most impressive and prolific Swiss tool makers in the world, and nearly everyone can afford at least some of the products it makes.

Victorinox did not allow for a lot of photography in its facilities because of the proprietary nature of many of their machines and processes. I did however get the lucky chance to visit its testing department, where new watches and their parts (such as the straps) are tested and evaluated. Few watchmakers actually have departments such as this. Either those companies outsource testing of their watches, or they don’t test at all. I can’t go through all of the tests, but I will mention a few that I saw, including, putting a watch into a clothing washing machine, baking a watch in a heated oven for more than a day with chemicals including simulated sweat to see if it corrodes or discolors surfaces, violently shaking bracelets to see if they come apart or scratch, and putting a watch in a dishwashing machine.

In many parts of the world, Victorinox products can all be seen together at the company’s roughly 60 corporate stores. As of this writing, no Victorinox stores exist in the United States, though nearly all of the brand’s products can be either purchased online or at one of its many authorized dealers. When it comes to watches, the company is changing tack on where its timepieces are distributed when they aren’t being sold directly from Victorinox. The company’s North American arm reportedly closed several thousand points of sale for its wristwatches in an effort to better position them. It isn’t that Victorinox is going upmarket in cost, but with price points at roughly $500-$2,000 for most models, the company has found that placement in higher-end retailers and department stores helps consumers better understand the products’ positioning. This is especially true because the same place you can buy a $50 pocket knife for sports and the outdoors, is not necessarily the right place to sell a $1,500 automatic mechanical timepiece. It is also interesting to muse on the fact that, originally, Victorinox watches simply said “Swiss Army” on the dial in the United States. A series of lucky and historic circumstances allowed Victorinox the legal right to have a logo that is similar to the Swiss flag (today that is really only allowed in Switzerland for government organizations), as well as to put “Swiss Army” on the dial. It is a fact that all of today’s Swiss soldiers (an obligatory country-defense military service for many Swiss citizens) are officially issued a Victorinox Swiss Army pocket knife. American consumers loved the concept, and the brand exploded in popularity throughout the 1990s in America. I fully remember that era and it has helped solidify my positive sentiment of the brand. Only later did the watches receive the “Victorinox” name on the dial. Many U.S. consumers familiar with Swiss Army pocket knives have yet to understand the larger story of who and what Victorinox represents as a brand.


Why did Victorinox decide to make wristwatches in the first place? As I mentioned above, the long-term thinking company decided in the late 20th century that it was wise to diversify the types of products it made. Having endured supply and demand shocks many times over the company’s history (more of which would come in the decades after the company decided to diversify), Victorinox didn’t want to be reliant on just knives. Adding travel gear and watches made sense, both given how customers perceived the company, as well as what type of special skills or talents were available in neighboring parts of the country. Watches were a logical choice, especially given how robust the mainstream market for them was in the 1980s and 1990s. What I think is interesting about this fact is that because Victorinox is a relatively new watch company, it isn’t bound to any historic designs or themes. The only mandate is that Victorinox Swiss Made watches fit in with the personality and values of the company, while offering customers a worry-free utility companion. That means the visual design and personality of a Victorinox watch is highly malleable and open to creative interpretation.

A few years ago, Victorinox overhauled its wristwatch department as part of a larger reorganization to consolidate how its various product teams operate, with the goal of increased cohesion and messaging consistency. That means today’s Victorinox watches are part of a moving target of ongoing innovation and development. That bodes well for enthusiasts who want to see a company “in action,” with planned new developments, models, and features to look forward to in the future. At this time, most of Victorinox’s focus is on further developing the INOX model family, including quartz and mechanical models, men’s and women’s models, and sports and lifestyle models. The watches are fun, easy to wear, fairly priced, really robust, and inclusive. They all fit into the larger ethos of the company to make people happy by providing them with tools that contribute to a lifestyle of “comfortable preparedness” (which is also probably a positive way of summing up Swiss national character).

For me, aside from my historical personal relationship with Swiss Army pocket knives, the value of Victorinox watches is pretty straightforward. You get the quality and artisanship of a proudly Swiss Made watch without the sense that you are paying for image or exclusivity. This is an inclusive semi-luxury brand that makes products that are premium without being pretentious. I look forward to continuing to track the developments of Victorinox watches and am really happy that visiting the company in Switzerland confirmed all of the good things I have been imagining about the brand for years. Learn more at the Victorinox website.

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