In 1985 the Victoria and Albert Museum in London selected it as part of an exhibit to celebrate the “100 most beautiful products in the world”. It stood alongside the Porsche 911 sports car and the Rolex watch. It was selected as a design classic in Phaidon Design Classics and has been displayed at the New York Museum of Modern Art as a design masterpiece. You will be surprised to find out that it is a simple French pocket knife – the Opinel No. 8. It’s a single blade pocket knife with a design that remains unchanged. Joseph Opinel made his first knife in 1890 with a carbon steel blade and a beech handle. Today it remains unchanged except for the addition of a locking ring (to hold the blade in place) added in 1955. The Opinel Virobloc, or safety twist-lock mechanism, was invented by Marcel Opinel in 1955 – increasing the usefulness, safety and versatility of the knife as it locks the blade in both the open and closed positions.
Testimony to its popularity is the fact that hundreds of thousands were sold by 1914, with twenty million being sold by 1939. Today, the knife range has expanded and blade options include a high carbon steel option (Carbone) which sharpens easily and acquires a definite patina with use. After cleaning, one should always wipe the blade with a light oil- even vegetable oil will suffice. The stainless steel derivatives also hold a keen edge which does not corrode. Today the knives still follow the original five piece design, although there are different woods used in the handles. The featured No 8 has a handle made from Olivewood. The knife is useful in many situations and unlike tactical folders, it is friendly for use in public.
The knives featured in the picture have been used for a variety of tasks, such as opening mail and packages, carving, peeling and even cutting biltong. I have also fixed cables, stripped wire and even cut cable ties. There is a certain charm in having this classic as part of your everyday carry. Even though it has been around for some time it still draws comment from passersby and those in the know. It is said that even Pablo Picasso favoured an Opinel.
Opinel now makes a variety of knives and garden tools all based on the original # 8. The Opinel knives make amazing travel companions – all they want to do is help out and add value to the experience. Opinels are very user friendly – the slightest bit of rust can be removed with steel wool and water paper, and they take an edge easily. I use a Warthog sharpener and finish it off with a “Lansky Blade Medic”. There are very few brands out there who have remained unchanged for such a long period having served our needs as bush folk as well as farmers, chefs and road-trippers. Maybe it’s not the best knife in the world but it is perfect for outdoor use, road trips and general use around the home.
And then we get to an all-time South African favourite that many of us grew up with and in many cases cut the odd finger or other body parts. It remains a South African icon along with Wicks, Beechies and Chappies as well as Biltong and the Bush. Originally manufactured in Germany at the turn of the century, the Okapi knife was designed mainly for export to German colonies in Africa. Today it is a South African brand and due to the value for money proposition, they are well favoured locally. Okapi knives are distinguished from most traditionally styled knives by the ratchet-lock clasp with the ring release. They open easily to reveal a 2.5” clip point 1055 carbon steel blade. Once you have honed and refined the blade it is suitable for most tasks that would be expected from a general-purpose knife.
The Okapi draws its name from an endangered animal that has the face of a buck, a giraffe-like shape and zebra-style striped legs. In 1988, tooling and the trademark was locally purchased and production was set up at a small village known as Isithebe north of Durban in the KZN province.
Its pedigree is unusual as it comes with a colourful history. Dubbed the “Saturday night special” because of its popularity with gangs, it has an interesting following. The low price point makes it easily accessible and there is uncertainty as to the steel used in the blade. It contains carbon, but bought from scratch it requires some work to get it to a nice edge. I have over time managed to get a good edge on my knife recently purchased. We were adamant that we had to get an Okapi on one of our trips and would not buy it locally in Gauteng. We were delighted to find them at a Total service station between Sutherland and Kenhardt.
The overall finish is pretty rough but it reacts well to a bit of TLC. The banana-shaped handle is made of wood that seems to have been impregnated or coated with resin with a moon and star-like inlay on one side. The Okapi is not uncomfortable to use or carry, and with the ring-lock requires two-handed deployment. Some folk elude to single-handed opening but I am not sure of that. I am happy with the lockup one my knife is when open, and it fulfils a variety of cutting and peeling functions adequately.
Like the Opinel the charm lies in the workmanlike style and finish. The Opinel to me has a greater level of finish and sophistication but given the price of both knives, they are excellent additions to any outdoor adventurer’s kit. Should you misplace or lose one you, will not berate yourself as you would do if you lost a more expensive knife.
At the end of the day, these are both great knives. Workmanlike and unsophisticated, yet they do the job as well as any knife that may cost 20 times the price. One is local and as we say “ local is lekker”.