A handful of French folding knives
There seams to be a very long love-hate relationship between two great nations, the United States of America and la République Française. Actually, our relationship goes back to well before there was a United States of America when French and English explorers started to compete for the fur trade in the Hudson Bay and Great Lakes regions of what would eventually become the USA and Canada, and some time later the French were cordial enough to support the Thirteen Colonies on the Revolutionary War against King George. Of course, a couple times during the XX century the United States gave a hand to the French to reclaim their country from recurring German invasions.
History aside, there is constant bickering over food, where the sophisticated Haute Cuisine is embattled against American classics like the hamburger, and no body can forget the Paris Wine Tasting of 1976 surprisingly won by California wines over traditional French wines on a blind tasting comparison done by an all French pannel.
And then there is the dispute over sporting guns, and the comment that French design is...well, French. But, we should not forget that the first modern breech loader shotgun and self-contained shell was French, designed and made by Casimir Lefaucheux. I have a 16-gauge Manufrance Robust that kills pheasants with definitive authority, even if some of its design features are clearly French.
But over the years I found that besides good wine (even if challenged by California), great food (which may be challenged by a great burger), and like the fantastic Mirage fighter, French folding knives design and manufacturing is second to none. They may be different, but different does not mean inferior.
My first French knife was a Laguiole Arbalète made by Genès David, a company that operates in Thiers, the traditional French cutlery centre, since 1810. The Laguiole is clearly inspired in the Spanish navaja, but it is a lot slimmer. Legend says that Napoleon commissioned the Laguiole knife both as a general purpose tool and as a last line of defense for the soldiers in the French Army. I don't know if that is true or not, but this superbly made knife is clearly up to the task. I bough my Laguiole in a Tobacco store just outside the Gare du Nord in Paris in 2003, if I am remember correctly. At first the large blade and the "rat tail" handle look strange, but when I was able to handle it the natural balance is apparent, be it for slicing a nice salami or piece of cheese or other less pleasant uses. When the blade is folded the large Laguiole just "disappears" inside a front pocket until you need it.
I don't recall when or where I bought my first Opinel, but the latest one (the one with orange died handle) I bought last month in Düsseldorf. While the Laguiole is a refined and somewhat pricey knife, the Opinel is an extremelly affordable working man's or peasant's knife. The Opinel simple and elegant design consists of a blade, wooden handle, stainless steel metal clamping band, stainless pivot pin (axle), and a stainless steel Virobloc locking collar, which locks the blade open or closed, and in 1985 the Victoria and Albert Museum in London selected the Opinel as part of an exhibit celebrating the “100 most beautiful products in the world”. The Opinel was also selected as one of the 999 classic designs in Phaidon Design Classics, and has been exhibited by the New York's Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) as a design masterpiece. This is quite an accomplishment for a low priced poor man's knife that has been around since the 1890's.
But I do recall very well that I bought my L'Ecureuil (the Squirrel), which is a nickel-plated version of the famous Douk-Douk all metal folding knife primarily market in France. I had a meeting with an editor in down-town Marshall, MI, and on my way back to my truck I saw the sign to a small knife shop down some stairs from the street level. I broused around for a while until I spotted the Douk-Douk decal and the L'Ecureuil. I first read the history or story of the Douk-Douk and its creator, Gaspard Cognet in Gérard Pacella's "100 Legendary Knives" ("100 Couteaux de légende). Like the Opinel, the Douk-Douk, in its many variations, is a simple, yet very well made, utility folding knife, intended to be a tool for the working man. In the case of the Douk-Douk it was originally designed for export markets formed by then French colonies around the world, but its inherit quality made it a success at the heart of the French empire and many other countries. When I was a child in Brazil the Douk-Douk design and manufacturing process was widely copied, although the quality was not the same.
I may not carry or use my French knives everyday, that is the privelege of my Swiss Army Huntsman and lately a CRKT Ken Onion Swindler, but I would feel very comfortable with either of these unique French knives. Vive la Différence!