May 15, 2012

Handcrafted Innovation – The Ultimate Ski Experience from ZAI

How it is possible not to be affected by the recession? By following actual user experience, providing customized solutions that meet personal needs, and creating products which bring incredible ease and pleasure to the user. By exploring new paths, by remaining true to a vision, and by investing in products which challenge previous-held (established) assumptions.

And who is better suited for this task than a designer who also happens to be an experienced user himself? The Swiss ski brand ZAI exemplifies this kind of dedication to better user experience whereby skier and skis are „united in a perfect entity of motion“. The skis are designed and crafted in limited editions in the village of Disentis, situated in Switzerland’s largest canton Grison, near the ski resorts of St. Moritz and Davos-Klosters.

According to Benedikt Germanier, ZAI CEO, “The recession had no effect on ZAI. Quite the opposite it seems. Sales volumes are up 40% compared to last year. High margin/price products are performing best (last season’s Spada edition is sold out, the new Spada edition is selling well). In spite of the recession, performance suggests that ZAI is in a growing, new niche.“

ZAI has been leading this new market niche since 2004. Nezza, developed in 2010, was a revolutionary new ski made entirely of zaiìra®, a unique synthesis of contemporary high-tech materials developed in accordance with the same principles as those used in modern aircraft. The result was a new step in ski construction and ski customizing, as the ski can be customized even after it has been constructed. Nezza has become one of ZAI’s best-selling products, even at a price tag of $7,300! Besides its technological innovations, ZAI’s undeniable charm is evident in its authentic narrative, a narrative grounded in its natural environment and people, a narrative not just about the products, but the entire experience surrounding them.

ZAI supersport for Bentley. Photo: ZAI.

Vision that energizes innovation bloodstream

Behind every big story lies an individual. In this case that person is ZAI’s visionary and designer Simon Jacomet. His pursuit of the joy of harmony and motion in skiing led to the design of ZAI’s unique uncompromising products, an experience diametrically opposed to the mass ski production in the big companies he used to work in before. Together with friend and investor, Thomas Staubli, he established an authentic new ski brand and named it ZAI – a word derived from the Romansh dialect meaning tough or resistant – dedicated to innovation in the use of materials and technology.

One of the ZAI founders and designer: Simon Jacomet in ZAI production. Photo: ZAI.

With his pioneering use of granite stone for the ski core, combined with carbon fibers, natural rubber, wood and stainless steel, Jacomet developed a new generation of skis that incorporated new aestethics and innovative new materials like zaiìra® which improve flexibility and stability while maintaining damping characteristics at minimal weight. The results provided accomplished ski functions for different users, irrespective of their skiing expertise, whether in deep or packed snow, driving fast or slow.

Local identity as product identity

Local tradition has been translated into ZAI’s brand with the first skis ever to be made of granite and india-rubber, benchmarking innovations. Beside Grison’s granite as product’s constructive element, ZAI has been making decisions that reflect its local identity, also through the product names that derive from the region’s Rhaeto-Romanic dialect  (Spada, Nezza, Laisa, Testa, Feffa), communicating product function and characteristics.

Detail of ski Nezza. Photo: ZAI.

Thus, the Spada (sword) ski performs with smoothness at high speeds, while the Nezza (black blade) tames the mountain’s hard pistes. ZAI skis are still being manufactured in the Swiss village of Disentis where the brand began, maintaining quality and fusing research and development with production processes. In the same manner, ZAI’s accessories product – the Capetscha cap – is still being  knitted by Turtè, Maria, Anna, Agatha, Katharina, Stefania, Regina i Johanna – a group of elderly ladies at the retirement home in Disentis.

the Capetscha cap – is still being knitted by a group of elderly ladies at the retirement home in Disentis.

Furthermore, in addition to Jacomet, all ZAI development team members are experienced skiers, come from Disentis, and personally test-drive each pair of skis whether their job description is carpenter, automotive mechanic, structural engineering draughtsman or architect. Because the skis are handcrafted, they can be custom-tailored to reflect individual needs and desires. Customers are invited to visit the plant – which they often do – making the two-hour drive from Zurich to service their winter ‘pets’ for new adventures on the slopes.

Secret ingredients of every innovation

ZAI’s success in these turbulent economic times is an example of not just maintaining a product’s position on the market, but leading it. There is no substitute for the hard work of pioneering new design solutions, and if you are lucky – enjoying the support of an Investor Board such as ZAI’s. In order for innovation to succeed, the vision and its visionary must not be obstructed by the accountant mentality of its investors or management board.

ZAI’s innovative design in product development and choice of team members – chosen not only for their knowledge, but for the passion for what they do – is the heart that energizes the bloodstream of the business, a process which does not happen overnight, and is unlikely to be cloned by competitors.

Tatjana Bartakovic

Tatjana Bartakovic

Editor in Chief of Design Agenda. Works as Design curator and writer but mostly living from the work in public relations, branding and content marketing.

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