I’m not saying my winter sports equipment is out of date, but the Elan skis that have served me faithfully on some of Europe’s most celebrated pistes for 22 years are proudly emblazoned with the legend “Made in Yugoslavia”.
Their of-the-era black and cerise livery is further marked with the word “Kevlar”, attesting to the fact that they held cutting-edge status some time before the outbreak of the Croatian War of Independence – although the MRR race bindings, I’m often warned, dropped off the “safe to use” list years ago.
But after the first couple of runs of the season, once the corrosion has been knocked off the edges and the MRRs’ creaking springs have flexed back into life, I’m soon convinced that those (t)rusty Elans, all 200cm of them, still have a certain, well, élan – albeit in a manner of which Gamesmanship author Stephen Potter might well have approved.
So it was with a degree of reserve that I accepted an invitation to travel to an unremarkable industrial building in the Swiss town of Disentis (population a little over 2,000) to meet the man who, it is said, makes “the world’s best skis” with the world’s highest price tags.
The name Zai will probably be familiar to many of the committed skiers among How To Spend It’s readership, but to those who know it only as a village in the Indian state of Maharashtra (or, for the horny-handed, what Wikipedia defines as an “off-season farming technique used to collect nutrients from compost”), it’s worth explaining that the Zai in question was established in 2003 by two investors and Simon Jacomet (pictured below), a Disentis native who left the mountains as a young man to study fine art in the more culturally rich environs of Florence.
But, with snow in his blood, he ended up back home training ski instructors before becoming the technical coach for Switzerland’s national ski team and working as a product-developer for top equipment-makers Salomon and Völkl – and then setting up Zai (which roughly translates from Jacomet’s native Romansch language as “resilient”).
His aim was to take ski manufacture “off-piste”, away from the computer-designed, machine-made, mass-produced norm and into the realms of handcrafted luxury, where there’s a place for avant-garde thinking and unusual materials. Which is why the latest Zai Spada ski (Sfr6,900, about £4,598) features a core created from a thin length of granite and an upper surface clad in cellulose acetate – better known as the substance used to make spectacle frames.
Other models, which range from the “entry-level” Scadin (about £2,199) to the truly radical, split-tail Nezza (about £5,264), combine such unlikely ingredients as rubber, cedarwood and “zalira”, a carbon composite of Zai’s own creation. All feature a “pre-stressed” rocker profile and are said to lose just five per cent of their tension after 100 days of use – compared with a figure of 25 per cent after 30 days for mass-produced makes.
“At first, people think putting granite into the core of a ski is simply a gimmick, but when you understand it, you discover that it has remarkable qualities of damping and compressive strength – both important in a high-performance ski,” says Jacomet. “What we’re trying to do is to bring race technology to the leisure market.”
When you ski on a pair of Zais, the quality really does shine through. Compared with Zais, even the better mass-market offerings feel like the proverbial “planks of wood”. When carrying them to the lift, the lack of weight, the balance and the craftsmanship are entirely palpable.
But are they worth the price? Looked at simply as a device to expedite travelling from the top of a snow-covered slope to the bottom, then it’s difficult to justify forking out up to about £6,530, the price of the range-topping, special-edition “Zai for Bentley” model. But take Jacomet up on the offer to visit the factory that he makes to every prospective customer; watch him grafting away in the workshop during one of his regular 18-hour days; listen to his enthusiasm for what he does; and, finally, clip your boots into a pair of his skis – and you’ll probably want some.
And you don’t just get the skis, but also custom Salomon bindings, a pair of Komperdell carbon poles, a two-year warranty and a year’s insurance against theft.