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Topic: The Douk-Douk, The Conquest of Africa
September 3, 2014
The Douk-Douk – The Conquest of Africa
At the start of the last century, Antoine Cognet became the head of the firm
Soanen Mondanel, a cutler in Thiers. They had been manufacturing folding
knives that had been developed in 1835 by La Coutellerie Francaise, whose
blades were stamped with a hare. Gaspard Cognet, who curiously enough
everyone called Gaston, succeeded his father, but was soon faced with major
difficulties, the French economy being in a somewhat shaky state after the First
World War. In Addition, exports, which had been a major source of revenue, had
crumbled, and so it was vital to find new markets.
That was how Gaston had the idea, in 1929, of designing a good quality-folding
knife for daily use at an affordable price. It was a very flat knife, the handle of
which was simply a piece of folded sheet metal, onto which was fixed a blade
swiveling on an axis and held by a spring. It was essential that this blade be
forged from the best steel and that its cutting edge be tough enough to handle
anything. Once the knife had been produced, all that remained was to find a
country to export it to. Which one did they choose? Melanesia!!
Why did they choose the collection of Pacific Islands? Because it was far away
totally unknown, free from commercial invasion by anyone. Gaston, who was
neither short of audacity nor of imagination, set about looking for a name that
would favor the sale of his new baby. He researched this far-off country with its
strange beliefs, and a picture decorating the cover of an old book grabbed his
attention: a character covered in feathers, wearing a pointed hat and with bare
legs. His name? Douk-Douk! Such an original name, pronounced in all
languages, and such an unusual silhouette would clearly stand out. The idea was
received with enthusiasm!
However, perhaps he should have gone a little further in his research concerning
the significance of this figure. Since Douk-Douk embodies the sprit of punishment
for the Melanesians and plays the role of scaring those who have something to
fear or to hide. The brand was registered in 1930 and production started on a
grand scale, but the attempt to conquer these distant South Sea Islands met with
total failure. It was never clear if this was due to the unfortunate choice of symbol,
but Gaston Cognet was not a man to be shaken by such setbacks, and he soon
set sail for another destination, North Africa.
This time, the knife found immediate success, with 98 percent of production
being exported. After trying their hand in North Africa, why shouldnʼt they try
heading south, before turning their attention to Lebanon or Indochina?
Everywhere it went the knife was received with greater appreciation than they
dared hope, but the reasons for this success had little top do with luck. In fact,
the quality of the cutting edge was remarkable, with the blade made from fine
carbon steel, forded in special ovens burning hardwood charcoal, followed by a
special tempering process in the workshop. In addition, so that each country
would have its own connection with the knife, others, including a lion, a fox and a
Southern Cross, replaced the original effigy.
Also models were named the “Tiki” the “El Baraka” the “Saharien” and the “Ed-
Dib”. This impact was such that for certain people the Douk-Douk became a
currency. To have had an idea of designing and producing such a knife during a
lean economic period, simple, cheap, light, flat to the point that its owner would
forget it was in their pocket. While ensuring an uncompromisingly high quality
blade and creating a whole legend surrounding it, really is a magnificent and
amazing feat worthy of much admiration. Particularly if one considers that it had
been necessary to roam distant lands at a time when such places were
conspicuous neither by their economy nor safety for Europeans!