An innovative magnet game has catapulted a less than two-year old Swiss firm into a worldwide brand that has captured a number of prestigious awards.
Even in China, big bucks are being forked out for Ticino-based Geomag’s pricey new toy.
Essentially the game, also called "Geomag", is something like a magnetised Lego with a few basic pieces.
A nickel-plated steel sphere, a plastic rod with two permanent magnets at each end, and a steel plug positioned between the two magnets constitute its main elements.
What sets Geomag apart from rivals such as Lego-Technics, Meccano, and Knex is the incredible flexibility and creativity that magnetisation enables.
Countless two- or three-dimensional geometric figures or models - from simple triangles to atoms to contoured human forms or spinning toys - can be made through mixing and matching pieces.
Geomag can also be used as a teaching tool, for example, in the science classroom.
But it’s not just aimed at schoolchildren. The package states that Geomag is suitable for people aged three to 99.
Invented by Claudio Vicentelli, the toy has been manufactured in Italy since 1995. But a falling out led its creator to seek a new business partnership.
Subsequently, Vicentelli tied his fortunes to an Italian businessman, who set up shop in 2003 in Ticino, Switzerland’s Italian-speaking canton, under the Geomag name.
As a construction set can easily run to SFr100 ($83) or more, purchasing the game is something of an investment. But this fits in with the firm’s philosophy of creating an elite product.
"We want our brand to be well-known at the highest quality level," said marketing director Jeff Evans.
The words "Swiss made" are prominently displayed on the packaging as, according to Evans, this label still stands for outstanding quality worldwide.
"There are at least 30 imitations being made right now all over the world," he said. "We want our product to stand out."
Tea to China
A success in the marketplace, Geomag has also garnered accolades from the toy industry.
Winning the prestigious Toy Award of the US Toy Industry in the category "Special Toy of the Year 2004" - the Oscars of the toy world - was a thrill, says Evans.
"We knew that we’d been nominated, but when our name was called, we could hardly believe it," he recalled.
The game has also scooped the British Association of Toy Retailers’ "Best Construction Toy of 2005" award, as well as the commendations of parents’ organisations.
Along with Italy and the Scandinavian countries, Britain counts among Geomag’s most lucrative markets.
Looking eastwards, the firm already sells in China and has founded "Geomag China".
Importing a game into the largest toy manufacturing country in the world would seem a risky move, but the company is bullish. Geomag’s Evans recently participated in a toy exhibition in China.
"The people there could hardly believe we were selling a Swiss toy in China," he said.
Keeping an edge
Almost all of Geomag’s employees commute daily from homes in Italy to jobs in Switzerland.
Initially 30 workers handled the production, but now Geomag’s staff numbers 160. According to Evans, the company rang up annual sales of €25 million in 2004.
To keep its edge, Geomag keeps inventing new product lines and uses, including variations in board and strategy games. A special edition of the façade of Italy’s La Scala Opera House has been released, plastic panels conferring solidity to large-scale structures.
At the moment the lone Geomag shop in Switzerland is in Foxtown Shopping Centre near Mendrisio, Ticino.
"The store there is like a laboratory for us," said Evans. "There we see at first hand how customers react to new products."
Invented by Claudio Vicentelli in 1995.
Manufactured in Italy under the name "Geomag" from 1998-2002.
Geomag starts manufacturing in Ticino under the name "Geomag" from 2003.
Produced by Geomag SA in Ticino.
In less than two years Geomag has ratched up €25 million in annual sales.
It has won prestigious prizes for its innovative toy.
Magnetisation makes it possible to create endless variations of forms.
Geomag is also on sale in China – the largest toy manufacturing country in the world.
(Adapted from German by Kathleen Peters), swissinfo.ch