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by David Thomas October 01, 2022
Germany’s renowned scissormaking centre
October 3rd is German Unity Day, and in 2023 Germans are celebrating 33 years since the country was reunified after the fall of the Berlin Wall. What better time to revisit an historic industry that not only predates reunification, but is arguably older than modern Germany itself?
Home to many of our heritage scissormakers, and perhaps better known worldwide for its knife industry, Solingen is affectionately known as der Klingenstadt, or the City of Blades. The town has been the center of Germany for knives, scissors, cutlery and razors since the Middle Ages and it’s still going strong.
The city of Solingen is located about 35 km north of Cologne in the Wupper Valley. It has a population of 160,000 and hosts more than 90% of the firms in the German cutlery industry, including famous brands like Wüsthof, Zwilling J. A. Henckels and Böker. For scissors aficionados, the prized brands include WASA, Robuso and Friedrich Herder.
In many ways, Solingen shares history with other cities in Europe that became local manufacturing centers of scissors and other steel goods in the past few centuries.
The industry that put most of them on the map in a big way was sword making. The public needed knives, scissors and cutlery – but the big prestige product with its military honours was initially swords. The scissors industry took off in a big way in the 18th Century when swords became more of a cottage/ceremonial market and sword makers diversified into broader consumer steel goods.
So why did all these steel industries grow up together in the same towns? Part of the reason was access to raw materials, wood or coal for firing ovens and proximity to rivers for water power. Historians say Solingen was actually established as a blade town as far back as 1200 AD.
“It was while clearing land for farming that the inhabitants of the scattered villages of the Wupper Valley that veins of plentiful and easily obtainable iron ore were to be found just below the earth,” explains Richard Cohen, in his book By the Sword: A History of Gladiators, Musketeers, Samurai, Swashbucklers and Olympic Champions.
“Nearby beechwood forests could provide the charcoal, the numerous streams and rivers the necessary power. With such abundant resources, craftsmen could make high-quality, long, flexible steel swords.”
As these industries grew in size and sophistication, they benefited from shared access to manufacturing processes, such as forging, and to a highly skilled pool of labour and the expertise of powerful guilds. As Cohen argues, the people of Solingen did the rest and put the city on a course to challenge the then-king of the sword trade, Toledo.
“By the 15th Century the reputation of the ‘City of Swords’ shone bright.”
The number of workshops and firms bloomed, with some making knives, scissors and cutlery, while others specialized. And the boom wasn’t just in Solingen, but also in Sheffield, England, Thiers in France and various cities in Japan, Italy and Spain. By the 19th Century, many of these towns were home to more than 100 firms and became important regions for industry and trade.
The population of skilled tradespeople grew and medieval guilds were formed to advance skills and protect trade secrets, furthering the town’s reputation for quality. As Solingen grew, it developed to become a rival to Damascus and Toledo for having the best quality steel and mastery of sword making.
Cohen says that by the late 17th century there were more than 300 families active in sword making in the area and more than 100 workshops fashioning swords and other steel products. There are fewer today, but the tradition of quality lives on.
For makers of scissors and tableware, as it was for swords, the name Solingen was a brand name itself, equal to that of the craftsman and serving a stamp of quality assurance. It’s the same with other blade towns, such as Sheffield in England, Thiers in France and elsewhere.
Companies needed to adhere to the highest standards to be able to stamp the Solingen name on blades. As early as 1571, the Solingen knife makers were awarded the privilege of using a "Made in Solingen" stamp on their products. Scissor makers followed a few hundred years later: winning this privilege in 1794.
When that brand stamp of origin means everything, it also means a risk of knock-offs, and blade towns have wrestled with that for centuries. You might say: where there was quality forging, there was often also forgery.
More recently, food/cooking celebrities Martha Stewart and Emeril Lagasse found out the hard way that you shouldn’t mess with Solingen after they jointly marketed a line of chef knives with Made in Solingen on one side and, curiously, Made In China on the other. Both couldn’t be true.
The local chamber of commerce in Solingen took them to court for marketing forgeries, while Wüsthof asserted its name was being used inaccurately as the manufacturer in marketing materials.
One firm in Solingen traces its craft heritage as far back as the Thirty Years War, which ended in 1648: Friedrich Herder is now the oldest surviving knife and scissor maker in Germany.
The story goes that Jürgen Herder was actually making swords for battle during the Thirty Years War, at least a generation before the company was founded under his family’s name in 1727. There are no Herder ancestors left with the firm but the name lives today on under the protection of a new family, Stephan and Benno Burghaus.
Other craft scissor makers in Solingen are building their own history, even if they have been at it for less time than Herder. WASA, short for Waldmin & Saam, was established in 1907.
WASA makes only scissors, and although it’s a modest size with 12 employees, it is building a global reach, manufacturing over a thousand different pieces for various models and sizes of scissors that are shipped to 30 different countries.
Robuso, founded in 1919, produces a line of traditional scissors and has also diversified into other precision modern products for the auto, wind turbine and aviation sectors.
With the production mix and advances in technology, there are some modern technologies employed but the company is proud to assert that about 85% of the process is still done by hand and, of course, to the highest Solingen standard. Today’s leadership is the family’s fourth generation at the helm, and the company has 24 employees.
One famous Solingen maker of scissors, Dovo Stahlwaren, decided in early 2022 to drop its scissors line and to focus solely on razors and shaving products.
Get the scoop about Ciselier’s mission to raise awareness of craft scissors and make these affordable luxuries available to discerning consumers.
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