In a culture that often views its goods as replaceable rather than precious, the craft of handmaking has become a particular badge of honor worn by both maker and user, those who want better not more. Made in the Aubrac region of southern France using centuries-old techniques, the Laguiole knife is one such talisman of the craftsmanship tribe. It is made and assembled by a single master cutler from start to finish in a single sequence. And while there is no lack of imitations, there is certainly no substitute for the genuine article.
The region of Aubrac is found in southwest France, atop a plateau that was created by volcanic eruptions six to nine million years ago. Streaked with mountains, valleys, and four glacial lakes, it sees long, rough winters with heavy snowfall. By 1000 BC, the area was inhabited by Celts, and later, two Gaulish tribes, the Gabalians and Rutènians. With its harsh climate, unforgiving terrain, and utter lawlessness, Aubrac became a playground for bandits and thieves hoping to ambush pilgrims making their way along the route to Santiago de Compostela (in northwestern Spain) that cut through the area.
Flemish count Adalard was one such pilgrim who traveled along that route the early 12th-century. Fearing for his safety, Adalard vowed that if he should complete his journey through Aubrac unscathed, he would erect a pilgrimage center to ensure the safety of those who would come after him. True to his word, Adalard built the Abbey, or Dômerie, of Aubrac in 1120. It served as a home to monks and knights, and fed and sheltered pilgrims who passed through. The Dômerie distributed 5,000 loaves of bread daily, accommodated up to 500 people, and rang the ‘Bell of the Lost’ to help travelers through particularly hard snows.
At the time of its construction, the Dômerie was surrounded by thick forest. The monks cleared the land and discovered that while it was unsuitable for crops, it made for rich pastureland. Livestock became a way of life for local residents, and gave rise to the birth of Aubrac cattle, a hardy and resilient breed able to withstand the region’s climate and geography. Meat and cheese production quickly became the area’s chief economy; centuries later, knife production would share this right.
HISTORY OF THE LAGUIOLE KNIFE
With a cattle-herding population comes the seasonal migration of both livestock and the people who tend it. This ebb and flow brings about cultural exchange – foods, traditions, and tools are swapped, modified, and adapted. Such is the story of the Laguiole knife. Until the beginning of the 19th-century, the local Aubrac peasant knife was known as the Capouchadou (or ‘Capujadou’) – a fixed, pointed blade inserted into a piece of wood. When cattle herders and shepherds traveled to Catalonia, Spain, during their winter migration, they brought back that region’s pocketknife, the Navaja, as a souvenir. At home, local cutlers and tinkers combined the two knives, and in 1829, Pierre-Jean Calmels, a resident of the village of Laguiole, created the basic Laguiole knife as we now know it. The first awl, or ‘trocar,’ was added in 1840, and was used to puncture the body cavities of livestock who were suffering from bloat; in 1880, a corkscrew was added in response to the demands of bar and restaurant owners in Paris, who had also adopted use of the knife.
From 1880 through the 1920s, the Laguoile knife was the industry standard for the highest quality cutting tool available. During that time, every knife was produced by hand by single master cutler from start to finish. However, in 1930, as the popularity of the knife began to soar, manufacturers struggled to keep up with demand. As a result, machine mass production began in the nearby hub city of Thiers, where it still continues today. By 1985, handcrafted assembly shops began to reappear, along with two local forging mills that were committed to making the knives’ metal parts in the traditional hand-forged fashion.
Laguiole wares, from steak knives to flatware, have always been sleek and sinuous. Traditionally, the handle was made of cattle horn or bone, but may also be made from wood (local and exotic) as well as fossilized mammoth ivory from Alaska or Siberia. The blade and other metal instruments (such as the corkscrew) are made of stainless or high-carbon steel.
There are several defining characteristics present in each traditional (and genuine) Laguiole knife. Perhaps the most recognizable is the iconic bee or ‘la mouche’ (fly) on the springhead. The first bee appeared on a Laguiole knife in 1909, and there is much speculation as to its meaning. Popular local legend dictates that the bee was the imperial seal that Napoleon Bonaparte offered to the village of Laguiole as a token of his gratitude for the men’s courage in battle, though this is often disputed for a variety of reasons. Whatever the true story is, one thing is certain: the bee on genuine Laguiole knives is forged from the same piece of metal as the spring – not added on afterward.
Another identifying feature of the Laguiole is the Shepherd’s Cross. Each knife’s handle bears six to eight inlaid pieces of metal that form a cross when held vertically. This tradition originated in the 19th- century with shepherds and cattle herders that were migrating with their livestock. Far from any places of worship, they would stick their knives into the ground, a loaf of bread, or a table, and pray to the cross.
Lastly, the presence of a unique pattern along the knife’s metal spine is another way to spot a real Laguiole. This mark acts as a personal signature of the cutler who created that particular knife, and no two are alike. Since each knife is slightly different depending on who made it, aficionados use the pattern to collect similar knives from a cutler whose work they’ve come to admire.
KNIFE-MAKING AT LAGUIOLE EN AUBRAC
One of the finest crafters of Laguiole knives is Laguiole en Aubrac. Here, recruited craftspeople undergo a rigorous training program that lasts between one and three years. At the end of the program, each cutler-in-training develops and submits the unique pattern they wish to use as the personal signature on their knives. Once the pattern is accepted, they officially become a Laguiole en Aubrac master cutler.
The knife-making process at Laguiole en Aubrac begins with the hand-forging of the metal components at a local mill. Once the metal pieces are completed, a master cutler rigorously inspects each one. That same cutler completes every task required to produce a single knife, individually hardening, shaping, and fitting it by hand and to their eye. There are approximately 109 production steps for a one-piece knife, 166 for a two-piece, and 216 for a three-piece model. One of the final steps is marking the metal spring with the cutler’s unique pattern, signifying the end of work.
From conventional handcrafting to modern manufacturing and back again, Laguiole has a colorful and storied past, much of which is still the subject of local mythology and speculation. But one thing that’s unchanging and unquestionable is that the company is a testament to the magic that occurs when cultures collide, masters create, and traditions live on.
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