Hardly any other industry can trace its origins as far back in history as the European cutlery trade. Once it was widespread and primarily settled in places with hydroelectric power or close to important trade centres or routes. The industrialization of the 19th century entailed a concentration on a small number of industrial zones scattered all over Europe, which – a common feature of that time – resembled each other more than neighbouring industrial centres of a single country. International interrelations like this are one of the reasons why entrepreneurs in the Bergisches Land ("Country of Berg" or "Land of Berg") called their factories ‚Cromford‘, ‚Birmingham‘ or ‚Sheffield‘. Until the mid 19th century, the named region closely followed the English model while being a pioneer itself as to the Prussian-German hinterland.
Industrialization of the cutlery production
Originally, it was mainly small workshops that produced cutlery, which can still be seen in Laguiole or Langres (France). Hydropower driving hammer works, bellows and, eventually, grinding mills shaped the trade to such an extend that steam engines only emerged with delay, for example in Thiers (France). In Solingen, almost all conventional ‚Wasserkotten‘ (water-powered grinding shops) were still in operation around 1900, even though steam grinding plants had long been in use at that time. As elsewhere in Europe, the introduction of drop forging technology strongly stimulated productivity, leaving the grinding sector with its artisanal structures behind. Small businesses, in turn, took advantage of the electric motor, which became widespread in the first decades of the 20th century.
Actually, the number of small workshops literally exploded. Around 1925, Solingen‘s cottage industry employed around 13,000 home workers, most of them based in Kotten (workshops) owned by themselves. But the advent of the electric motor also propelled the mechanization in factories. In the 1920s, Solingen and neighbouring Wuppertal-Kohlfurth laid the foundation for grinding technologies that were to set worldwide standards after the Second World War. Today, the cutlery industry is characterized by a strongly bipolar structure. There are workshops still deeply rooted in artisanal traditions as well as companies – for example in Portugal – with a very high degree of mechanization or even automation.
Solingen, Sheffield (England) and Thiers (France), the three most important European cutlery centers, have a great deal in common. They arose from old, export-focused crafts based on rather small-scale businesses dominated by blacksmiths, metal hardeners, grinders and fitters, some of whom regarded themselves as ‚independent‘ even when their workplace was part of the client's factory premises. In addition, Solingen provided sought-after support to other sites, for instance in Klingenthal in Alsace, which probably would not have developed as it did without the help of expert workforce from Solingen. Other examples are Premana (I), Gembloux (B), Maniago (I) and Thuringia (G), benefitting from close contacts and migration links that partly exist until to this day.
But there are also differences. The traditional hubs of the industry meanwhile host museums devoted to cutlery, whereas new players such as Portugal did not (yet) enter this level of awareness with history. Moreover, the global pattern of the cutlery trade has changed. Machines that Solingen companies scrap as obsolete may still be profitable in Spain and Portugal. This does not necessarily mean that technical standards vary from country to country. Sometimes, even within a single site, the plants‘ machinery differs considerably from one another. In addition, hardly any other industry boasts the same diversity of manufacturing conditions, which is due to the abundance of textile samples that still shapes the industry and enables even smaller and technically outdated companies to produce small batches for niche markets.
Centres of cutlery production
Since the late Middle Ages, Solingen was the undisputed centre for the manufacture of blades, knives and, subsequently, scissors. In addition, there were local hubs in various places, such as Steinbach (Thuringia), where the GDR knive production was located. The nearby Trusetal was another local centre of the cutlery trade, Leegebruch near Berlin produced pocket knives and Aue (Saxony) specialized on flatware for the GDR market. Apart from that, there are relevant companies in Baden-Wuerttemberg (WMF, Giesser, Dick) and Bremen (Robbe & Berking).
France is home to several operating cutlery centers with a history that spans several centuries. Nogent once delivered luxury goods to wealthy customers in Paris, the museum in St.-Jean-de-Maurienne in the French Jura, set up in a former plant of the Opinel family, attracts more than 60,000 visitors every year, and Klingenthal in Alsace has a long tradition as royal armoury. The production scheme of the French "Le Thiers" pocket knife has kept an entire generation of small workshops at work and helped the eponymous city to gain new prestige. In Laguiole, the revitalized sector has boosted a whole, economically neglected region.
Sheffield, the centre of British cutlery production and the trade’s undisputed world champion in the 19th century, now stands for the deindustrialisation of a steel city. Only a few remains of the cutlery industry have been preserved. The Belgian Gembloux was confronted with similar issues. On the contrary, Albacete, focal point of the Spanish cutlery industry, as well as Portugal have experienced a tremendous boom.
The two major sites of the Italian cutlery industry are located on the southern slope of the Alps: Premana east of Lake Como and Maniago north of Venice. Maniago owns a museum that is housed in the imposing building of a socially-owned enterprise built before the First World War. Victorinox, the world’s largest manufacturer of pocket knives, is based in Switzerland, while the Austrian counterpart – Feitel – is not produced any more except for a museum located in the village of Trattenbach.
The Cutlery trade today
The cutlery industry does not seem to be ready to accept its deeply European character. The more capital is involved in applying new technologies, the more congruent are the features of the trade. In addition, technical skills are no longer a secret, which means that Solingen expertise is not essential any more to set up a new production unit.Thus, the industry has developed rapidly in the last 25 years. Former production hubs have vanished or are subject to structural transformation, while new sites are booming. What is more, there is hardly any other ‚old‘ industrial sector that combines industrial museums with highly advanced facilities and handicraft with state-of-the-art production methods.
This European theme route was developed in cooperation with the ERIH Anchor Point Hendrichs Drop Forge LVR Industrial Museum in Solingen (D).