The village of Laguiole is perched high on a plateau in France’s Massif Central range, in the heart of the Aubrac countryside. It is filled with stone houses with gray-shingled roofs that are blanketed with snow in the winters and overlook colorful fields of wildflowers in summer. According to the official census, some 1,200 people live in Laguiole, but one local put the number closer to 500; a single walk through the quiet, picturesque cattle town is enough to believe it. Bakery windows are painted with bulls’ horns, and the brawny silhouette of the local Aubrac cow appears on much of the town’s signage. A large brass bull stands in the town square.
Milk from the Aubrac cow is used to make the local unpasteurized blue cheese, Tome de Laguiole, which is certified by the French government with a designation of appellation d’origine contrôlée, or AOC. This official stamp guarantees specific quality standards and geographic proximity, and acts as a certificate of authenticity for well-known French products — wines, butters, cheeses — both inside and outside France. But Tome de Laguiole is, at best, the region’s second-best-known export.
Laguiole’s most famous product by far is the distinctive slender knife of the same name. Originally a multitool for peasants of the Aubrac Plateau, Laguiole knives are found in the world’s greatest restaurants — and also in cheap faux-French cafés, small-town steakhouses and bargain homegoods stores. You can buy a set of eight on Amazon for $21.99, with the option for next-day shipping, or a single handcrafted piece made over the course of two days for several hundred dollars. This is because there are relatively few limits on who can use the Laguiole name. Officially speaking, there is no such thing as an authentic Laguiole knife.
Pierre Jean Calmels invented the Laguiole droit (“straight Laguiole”) knife in 1829 while working as the village blacksmith. It was a basic design meant for farmers; the handle was carved from the Aubrac cow’s black-tipped horn or ivory and the blade came to a central point. Later, Calmels updated his design, adding a fold-out trocar, a slim surgical awl used to puncture a cow’s rumen to relieve bloat. The blade was lean and slightly curved.
When the Industrial Revolution drove local farmers into the cities of Toulouse, Lyon, Marseille and Paris, they carried their Laguiole knives with them. As the design gained popularity, it picked up other distinctive embellishments: forged handle bolsters; designs chiseled along the spine; a Shepherd’s Cross hammered into the handle; and a hand-engraved bee fitted atop the spring. A corkscrew, for sommeliers and picnickers. Today, all are hallmarks of the iconic French folding-knife style. But the Laguiole knife is just that — a style. Although widely recognized, neither the Laguiole design nor the construction is protected by the French government, European Union, or any other entity. Numerous companies around the world — in China, Pakistan, even other parts of France — churn out cut-rate versions stamped with the same name, and there’s no one to say that they can’t. Those knives, the kind you buy as a wedding gift for your cousin, are imprinted with the Laguiole name, but not its soul.
Virgilio Muñoz is one of the best craftsmen in France. This is not simply hometown bravado: Muñoz, a master bladesmith at Forge de Laguiole, is one of few to hold the title of Meilleurs Ouvriers de France, or “one of the best craftsmen in France.” He has been making knives for nearly five decades, and when I meet him on a snowy January day, his hands are covered in oil and metal rubbings. Ebony, mammoth ivory and reef coral line his workbench, set to be transformed into handles. When asked about the importance of making knives in France, he corrects me. “Not made in France,” Muñoz says. “Made in Laguiole.”
In the scorching, oily heat of the Pit, the name for the downstairs level of the Laguiole plant, another man in a burnt apron is shouting over the incessant crashing, telling me to stand back.
“Very hot!” he yells.
The cheap Laguiole-style knives sold in big-box stores are mass produced, punched from sheets of low-hardness steel and then sharpened and assembled in bulk. Forge de Laguiole, as the name suggests, owns and operates its own forge, a massive furnace used to melt and shape metal.
The Pit is removed from the quiet, finesse-driven work of the craftspeople upstairs. This is where Laguiole blades are cut from sheets of bespoke T12 steel, sourced from the French steelworks Bonpertuis, then blasted in an induction oven at 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit. Once the crude blades are glowing red with heat, a three-man team uses a large mechanical hammer to drop 600,000 pounds of pressure onto the metal, a process that seals cracks and breaks apart impurities.
To harden the steel, blades are dipped by the basketful into a hot oil bath. I watch the man in the burnt apron use a long, hooked pole to open the door of a large box, unleashing a searing blast of heat. Inside sits a basket stuffed with knife blades, everything glowing the same lava-red; the man uses the hook to pull the basket over the vat of super-heated oil and 10-foot flames shoot up, engulfing the metal.
“Makes them strong!” he yells.
After the blades are cooled in a separate quenchant oil, they’re sharpened and polished by hand. Then, Muñoz and his team of handle-makers, engraving artists and smithies go to work.
In a long room, workers in chainmail aprons cut bone, horn and wood to handle length and work them into shape on leather wheels. Each handle is punched with tiny pinholes that will be fitted with the rivets that hold the knife together; the ancient symbol of the Shepherd’s Cross is added to the wood by hand. The hardware — springs, rivets and liners — is crafted from the same premium steel as the blade, unlike lesser models which opt for cheaper metal or plastic.
From there, the knife is passed off to one of five engravers who will hand-chisel the spine with ornamental decorations, a process that takes a half-hour for each knife; each engraver will finish just a dozen or so knives per day. The blade is then leather-polished hilt to tip, re-sharpened and presented to the inspection team, who check the weight balance, folding action and polish. Rejected knives will go back for more work. In a typical day, Forge de Laguiole produces around 100 finished knives.
Despite its old-world craftsmanship, Forge de Laguiole is not an ancient company born in a time immemorial; the brand was founded in 1987. But this was not an attempt to capitalize on a famous name. It was a bid to preserve it.
Forge de Laguiole is the only coutelier that makes, machines, finishes and assembles every piece of their Laguiole-style knife in its place of origin. It employs more than 100 knife-makers, metalworkers, sales people and support staff in Laguiole. Thierry Moysset, the brand’s CEO, speaks grandly of the Forge’s mission. “It is cutlery, yes. But it’s also culture, it’s heritage and it’s history,” Moysset says.
All types of manufactured goods can be protected: by governments and also the World Intellectual Property Organization, which issues “Geographic Indications (GI)” based on a location’s historical relationship to and reputation for the things that are made there. Forge de Laguiole knives do not have GI protection, but the brand is attempting to obtain it; Moysset says such designation would not only allow customers to buy knives backed by a certified quality guarantee — as with the local cheese — it would recognize history and help preserve it.
But among the world’s best chefs, particularly French chefs, true Laguiole knives need no higher recommendation. Michelin-starred cooks like Eric Ripert, Gérald Passédat, Sébastien Bras, Alain Ducasse, Guy Savoy, Pierre Gagnaire, Anne-Sophie Pic and Jean-Georges Vongerichten have all used the cutlery in their restaurants, and Laguiole has produced custom orders for clients such as Montblanc, David Yurman and the New York Yankees. The company is not looking to gobble market share or triple its output; the forge is running hot.
On a quiet snowy day in a mountain town with as many cows as people, it is easy to recognize what Laguiole is trying not just to preserve, but to export: a slower, more considered, more lasting view of the world.
“Modernism has not yet invaded this part of the country,” says Moysset, “and changed the way we do things, and live.”