DISENTIS — The snow hasn't fallen yet, and the crowds are still to come. It's a rainy December day under a low grey sky. A ray of sunshine sometimes pierces through the clouds to caress the eternal whiteness of eastern Switzerland's summits.
Having departed from the town of Coire, the small red train takes travelers to Disentis, riding along the cliffs. It looks like the end of the world. We're in the heart of the Alps, where for centuries skiing has been used as a means of transportation both practical and fun.
The train halts and allows the passengers to depart. With eyes fixed on the cobblestones to avoid the puddles, they forget that a massive abbey overlooks and dominates the village. Do they know that in this very valley called Surselva, craftsmen are creating the Rolls Royce of skis? The formula for the Zai brand is a well-kept secret.
To believe it, we had to see it, to touch the skis. We had to travel across the country to reach this region where bell towers are so slender that it seems as if they want to awake the gods. This is where the brand's creator, Simon Jacomet, grew up. He's been waiting for us, and raindrops are dripping from his felt jacket.
"Bun di," he says. In the emails we exchanged the week before, he also greeted us in the local tongue, Romansh. His factory is located just below the station, and a craggy path leads us there.
Trajectory of a master builder
After studies at the Beaux Arts and time creating skis for a renowned French brand, this local boy raised by Benedictine monks chose to return here to start his own workshop. He vowed to make no compromises in his goal for top performance and quality. Turning his back on mass production, he targets instead a niche clientele and works with the best brands, such as Bentley or Hublot. He is tech-savvy and lets his imagination flow, inspired by tradition and the nature around him.
Zai founder Simon Jacomet — Photo: zai-ski
"The people of the Surselva valley have a know-how in terms of craftsmanship, what must be preserved," Jacomet says. "We need their knowledge to create skis. We're six people in the workshop, and we're all from around here."
All six of them work in a space with plenty of natural light from tall windows. The only noises are those made by the tools and the machines to a background of rock music. Their gestures are quick and precise, but their production with such a small team is limited to about 800 skis a year.
"Each of us can do everything," Jacomet explains. "It's important to know the role of each and every step in the process." He makes a point of working every day, testing his ideas, looking for the limits of the materials he uses to better know them. Sometimes he even makes intentional mistakes "just to see" what happens.
That's how the brand introduces one innovation every year. "Each novelty brings a new dimension to the skis and their skiability," he says. "A wooden surface will offer a different dynamism than rubber, felt or carbon. Sure, these materials are beautiful, but that's not the only reason why they're used."
Jacomet opens the door of his cold room, a sort of Ali Baba's cavern where his materials sleep. On the right-hand side, thin strips of wood are on the floor. There are cedar — lasting, light and fragrant; walnut — heavier but of finer quality; and poplar — far lighter and more flexible. On the shelf are the rubber strips, arranged by color, the carbon fibers, the stainless edges, the metal sheets, leather.
"It's the combination and the proportion of the chosen materials that make the skis what they are. Just as in cooking, you have to try it first," Jacomet says, smiling.
Not just any skis
He moves towards the workbenches where the skis that are ready are waiting, like their eventual users, for the snow. A black 3D ski carved out of a carbon mass adjoins this other one with a interminable square tip that's made to fly in powder. And there's this other pair that subtly reveals its stony core. Yes, real stone — a green gneiss that constitutes the spine of the ski and bends with it. "Combined with natural rubber, the rock brings stability to the ski while remaining flexible," Jacomet explains. This model continues to fascinate me."
This year's creation has a felt surface that gives the skis the ability to absorb shocks once they are pressed and coated. "This ski is made for speed. Its geometry was inspired by a World Cup model," the designer explains. Skiing is all about sensation.
In Romansh, Zai means "resistant." For the creator, the quality of these skis will be proven by their longevity. "Our skis are made to last a whole life," Jacomet says. "We assemble solid and original materials with top-notch technology. Of course, they cost more than your average skis."
That's an understatement. A pair of Zai skis, sold with bindings and after-sales service, can cost between $3,250 and $10,000.
"Everything has a price — the work, the research, the materials," Jacomet says. "We tend to forget the value of objects nowadays." It’s a debate he also has with his children, who had to contribute to build the pair of skis they wanted. The concept of luxury is not one that's appreciated in this region. It's too risky. For Jacomet, an object first of all needs to work well before it can be beautiful. "It's a choice that implies a certain philosophy," he says.
Choosing Zai sounds like a conversion to a new religion. The local kid remembers his teacher, a Benedictine monk who liked to teach children about Buddhism. He encouraged him to have his own ideas and most importantly to defend them with arguments. "I noticed years later his influence on my life," Jacomet says.
It's lunchtime, and the workshop is empty now. Jacomet picks a place to dine. "Do you know capuns?” he asks. "It's a chard leaf stuffed with dough flavored with Salsiz sausage. They're good here, well proportioned."
In the Surselva valley, the quest for perfection goes far beyond skiing and seems to motivate each product. Of course, the capuns were delicious.