When I think about building skis, I think about sandwiches.
Skis, like sandwiches have a base and a top sheet, with a laminated wood core in the middle and a combination of composite layers to add stability and character.
Most mass-market skis (from the big names, who produce 100,000s of pairs per year) follow this recipe, as do smaller, boutique and custom ski makers. The ingredients are what vary, as well as the manner in which they’re combined and produced.
zai skis: The World’s Best Skis?
In 2003, Simon Jacomet founded zai skis (yes, the lowercase spelling is correct) after working as an alpine racing coach and ski designer for some of the world’s biggest ski makers.
A student of architecture and design, Jacomet enjoyed creating skis, but he yearned for more. Jacomet envisioned a new type of ski, a ski that would connect the skier and the skiing environment, not just while skiing, but in its sourcing and design.
So he returned to his hometown of Discentis, Switzerland and began using local craftsman and local materials to produce, what he considers, the world’s best skis.
Local Wool, Granite and Wood
Jacomet uses the basic ski sandwich recipe, but mixes it up, combining unique materials like local wool felt and granite with cedar, walnut and other woods to create durable, handmade skis.
For example, zai uses felt in their scadin ski (yes, all the ski names are lowercase as well). They compress felt fibers with a surface material to create a unique top sheet that is light, strong, flexible and scratch resistant. Swiss granite is incorporated into the spada ski, using a technology created in 2006, prestressing the granite with carbon fiber to create a shock absorbent material that provides a smooth, stable ride.
Jacomet also experiments with ski shape and dimensions. Perhaps the most striking skis in the zai portfolio are the laisa skis with a unique, slightly crazy looking double tip, designed to cut through powder and then float.
Let the Designer Explain
In November 2014, Jacomet received an email, a blunt one, from Lucas Bonnevie, college student in the U.S.
“I want to know how you can charge $10,000 for a pair of skis. Sir, go sit on a road cone, and rotate,” the student wrote. “P.S. Your shovel skis … no. Just, no.”
Rather than deleting the email and moving on, Jacomet responded with a comprehensive explanation.
“Allow me some thoughts before I go sit on a road cone and rotate,” he wrote.
“What we do at zai has to do with passion, as we all are skiers, live in a ski resort and love the mountains. It has to do with innovation and looking for technical limits. It’s about creating jobs in a mountain area, were young people are often forced to leave the valley.”
“It’s about developing a ski from scratch combining materials which have never been used this way before and knowing that there will only be sold small quantities.”
“In the end it’s a simple calculation of costs and not at all about fooling the customers.
On the contrary, we also customize skis for customers from all over the world.”
Jacomet closed by inviting Bonnevie to try zai skis in Switzerland or at the Vail World Championships, adding “you would take whatever freeride skis you’d like and I would ski on the “shovel” skis, as there are quite enough physical reasons for the shape.”
“Writing down (these) lines, I thought over it again: life is too short to sit on a road cone and rotate, I’ll keep on working with my great team on more amazing materials and projects.”
Which led Bonnevie to write back and apologize and make plans to meet up with the zai team at the Vail World Championships in February.
zai Equals Tough
The people of Discentis, Switzerland speak Romansch, the traditional Swiss language. In this tongue, the word zai means “tough.” And zai aims to build tough, long-lasting skis.
According to zai skis, most skis lose only about 5% tension after 100 days of use, as compared to most other skis which lose approximately 25% over thirty days of use. This potentially gives zai skis a longer life, and ultimately, depending upon how often you ski, greater value.
Worth $10,000? That’s a hard call. I’ll let you know after I try them.
Coalition Snow: Ski & Ride Like a Girl
If $10,000 skis aren’t for you and you’re female, check out new women-specific skis from Coalition Snow.
Jen Gurecki, the Coalition Snow founder, is a California-based snowboarder who believes that women deserve high-quality, high-performance skis and boards, designed by women for women.
Gurecki announced her company in October 2013, climbing with friends to the top of Mount Kenya and riding and skiing down on the company’s prototypes.
This winter, the skis and boards are available for purchase. Designed in California and produced in Japan, Coalition Snow offers three models: SOS, a mid-fat ski (105 mm under foot), Abyss, a powder ski (114 mm under foot) and Myth, a snowboard available in 147 cm and 151 cm lengths.
Coalition Snow’s goal is produce a top-line product for aggressive women riders and skiers. The skis and snowboards were designed, from core to top sheet graphics, entirely by women. And they’re not just dumbed-down, lighter versions of men’s gear.
As Gurecki puts it, these boards are designed to “hold up in steeps, at high speeds, while being fun and playful, and at a length that a lot of female skiers can handle.”