The Romansh word "zai" is a term used in the mountainous region of canton Graubünden in southeastern Switzerland meaning tough or resistant.This content was published on January 1, 2007 - 13:22
It's also the name of a tiny Swiss ski company building exquisite handmade skis which could quite easily be found on a gallery wall.
"If you see an old guy in the mountains who gives off tremendous energy – he's a 'zai' guy," says Simon Jacomet, the brains behind zai skis based in the mountain village of Disentis.
Jacomet is a man on a mission: in pursuit of the ultimate all-mountain ski that glides through powder yet carves tight turns through the heavy stuff.
At SFr3,300 ($2,700) a pair, their price tag may raise a few eyebrows, but then again zai skis are no ordinary planks. The classic old-school wood-and-metal exterior exudes understated quality, hours of creative design, painstaking craftsmanship and first-class materials.
And demand for such high-end products seems to be growing. The company, which was set up just over three years ago, is this year looking to produce 1,000 pairs of skis - almost double last year's figure.
Zai skis might not be cheap, but the company claims that anyone wishing to invest in a pair gets much more than simply top-notch skis, poles and bindings – and a Graubünden pebble as a souvenir of the region.
They are also buying into a particular way of life: "Zai is a philosophy; an ideal of linear perfection in the snow, completely rejecting any form of compromise," boasts the promotional literature.
And the man who preaches this way of life seems to know what he is talking about. Forty-three-year-old local lad Simon Jacomet is an artisan who is currently living the life he admits he had never planned.
"I studied art and architecture, and always thought that would be my path," says Jacomet, who also went to the Benedictine monastery in Disentis as a boy.
To finance his artistic studies, Jacomet started working as a ski instructor. He quickly progressed and in 1994 became a member of the renowned "Swiss Demo Team" – a group of expert skiers at the cutting-edge of changes in ski technique and style.
But he and his group of like-minded friends had their own ideas. Believing that skiing had become "too technical, traditional and artificial", they were determined that technique, learning and ski construction should become more "natural".
From there Jacomet slalomed his way between the big ski manufacturers Völkl and Salomon, where he was able to fine-tune his ideas, before taking the big jump on his own in 2003.
Building on his years of experience in the ski industry, he founded zai in 2003 and went in search of the perfect ski.
Whereas a designer of mass-produced skis is restricted in his decision-making, he was able to give free rein to his ideas to optimise the various elements and parameters involved in producing a ski, such as the choice of materials, the right geometry, dynamics and weight distribution.
Just over three years and many prototypes later, the company claims to have redesigned and perfected key characteristics, creating a ski with "unique turning agility, and liveliness, precision and smooth-running controllability for all skiers".
The workshop is a hive of activity as the team of local craftsmen meticulously assembles each ski by hand: cutting, branding, screwing, polishing, pressing and measuring – all the time aided by state-of-the-art machinery.
Jacomet picks up a ski from one of the many racks and proudly looks it up and down.
"The most difficult part of the whole thing, as in music, sport, painting or architecture," admits the artisan, "is to bring all the different elements together while aiming for maximum simplicity."
"Zai is a name that fits this company well," he adds.
swissinfo, Simon Bradley in Disentis
Zai was founded in July 2003.
Number of employees: 8.
Zai skis are currently sold at 40 different shops in Europe (Switzerland, Germany, Austria, Italy, France, Spain), New Zealand and the United States.
A pair of zai skis, bindings and poles costs SFr3,300.
The company is looking to expand its sales network to Russia, Canada, Korea and Argentina.
Zai produces five models, each with a Romansh name: Sutsu (topsy-turvy), Vieneu (to-and-fro), Enado (in-and-out), Siegiu (up-and-down) and Odavon (ahead).
1963: born in Disentis
1985-1987: Studied at art school in Florence from
1985: ski instructor training
1986: ski instruction expert (ten years as an instructor)
1990-1996: Member of the Technical Commission: CH-Interverband
1993-1996: Member of the Swiss Demo Team
1995-1996: Völkl ski development
1996-2001: Salomon International ski development and promotion
2003: zai ski company
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