The Opinel knife was invented by Joseph Opinel in 1890 in Savoie as a simple working man's or peasant's knife. It proved popular with the local farmers, herdsmen, and peasant winemakers of the area. In 1897, a series of twelve sizes, numbered 1 to 12, was developed. From 1901-1903, Joseph Opinel built his first factory in Pont de Gévoudaz and produced a machine for mass production of the knife's wooden handles.
To distribute his new range of knives, Opinel utilized the time-honored method of hiring peddlers to sell the knife, installing a small shop near the Chambéry railway junction, where the knives became popular with railroad workers, who in the course of their work spread word of the new knife all over France. By 1909, Opinel had registered his first trademark for the Opinel knife, choosing the main couronnée ('crowned hand") as his emblem. A few years later Opinel annual sales were in the hundreds of thousands, and by the start of World War Two, as many as 20 million knives had been sold.
The Opinel Virobloc or safety twistlock mechanism was invented by Marcel Opinel in 1955, greatly increasing the safety and versatility of the knife by allowing the blade to be locked in the open position.
The company is still run by the Opinel family. A museum dedicated to the Opinel knife (Le Musée de l'Opinel) is located at Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne.