Laguiole: the regained pride of a French village – Meanderings through France
Annick Dournes & Frederic de Poligny
This is the story of a small village located in Aveyron at the foot of the Massif Central known since the beginning of the 19th century for its craftsmen making exceptional knives. But in 1993 as French Gallic would have said: “ The sky fell down on the head” of Laguiole’s 1,300 inhabitants when a man living in Paris region registered the name “Laguiole” as a trademark. Overnight the right to use the name “Laguiole” for any artefact made in the village was denied to the people actually living in this beautiful little town. Only its famous cheese that has a Protected Geographical Indication since the 1960’s was able to keep its original name!
Meanwhile tens of products such as clothes, lighters, napkins and towels, toys, carpets and of course knives and forks were sold not only in France but all over the world, named “Laguiole” but made in China or Pakistan. But if it was only make-believe many consumers were not aware of it and truly thought they were buying “French Savoir Faire” and quality.
This was the beginning of a long legal obstacle race. The mayor and the Laguiole knives makers lodged a complaint for deceit, despoliation and unfair trading practice. Amazingly through the years several French courts asserted that the name, image and fame of the village had not been damaged and repeatedly the plaintiff’s claims were dismissed! That takes the cake in a country claiming to be proud of its products and know-how. It was not until 2014 that a European court quashed the trademark registered in 1993 basing its sentence on the fact that the “Forge de Laguiole” one of the main knives makers of the village was officially created in 1987.
So today when you buy cutlery, a paper knife, a razor, a corkscrew, a cigar cutter, a pipe cleaner or a shaving brush with the name Laguiole on it you can be sure to buy an artefact actually made in Laguiole knowing that it was entirely handmade in the village with a unique design and top quality materials. You can find them in many shops around the world and of course when visiting the Aveyron region and the victorious and proud Laguiole village.
There are several knives makers in the village and you can visit their shops in the town centre. But if you would like to know more about the knife making process you should visit the “Forge de Laguiole” where guided tours will take you through the different workshops where highly specialized craftsmen forge, sculpt, sharpen and polish the knives. It takes 40 hours to several days and between 40 to 180 steps to assemble a Laguiole knife. Although it has often been imitated you will easily recognize a Laguiole knife by the little bee sculpted on the spring of the handle, it’s the brand image since 1909.
Unlike many knife makers the “Forge de Laguiole”, forge their own blades using a T12 steel made in the Isere region known for its durability, its rust resistance and its ease of sharpening. The blacksmiths have unique methods of forging to give the blades a perfect cutting edge. After cutting the “skeleton” of the blades they heat them until “cherry red” between 900 and 1000° C, in an induction oven for just 6 seconds. Then the blades are forged with a 300-ton pressure sledgehammer and stamped with the Laguiole logo.
There seems to be no end to the list of material used to make the handle: wood such as oak, juniper, pistachio or olive, mother of pearl, coral, ivory, mammoth tooth, leather, shagreen, petrified wood, carbon… Whatever the material is, all the handles are sculpted by hand before being polished with a linen or cotton cloth to give it its smooth shine. Finally the blade is sharpened and once more grinding is entirely handmade.
Whether for pocket knives or table knives many famous designers created their own “Laguiole”: Stark, Andrée Putman, Hilton Mc Connico, Yan Pennor’s, Sonia Rykiel among many others adapted different shapes and materials to make true “objets d’art”. There are also remarkable and rare pieces created by the cutlers of the “Forge de Laguiole” using ebony, giraffe bone, boxwood burr, walnut root wood, mammoth ivory, 5000 years old bark oak to make the handles. The blades can be very precious too such as the carbon Damascus ones made by alternating 140 layers of soft and hard steel giving them a unique pattern. Virgilio Munoz and Stephane Rambaud are the two artists cutlers of Forge de Laguiole who imagine, design and make these jewel knives.
The Laguiole story is a happy ending one. Thanks to the strong commitment of the mayor and cutlers Laguiole regained its name and its pride. So next time you see items with the name Laguiole written on them think about this story and make sure they were made in France. Made in Laguiole!
For more information:
Text © Annick Dournes
Photos © Frederic de Poligny and courtesy of “Forge de Laguiole”