Czech Made: Koh-i-noor snap buttons – innovative artistry
In the first half of the 20th century, the Czech entrepreneur Jindřich Waldes was known as the “king of snap buttons”, and nearly as famous as the founder of the Baťa shoe dynasty, a major client. In fact, he was fond of saying “If Baťa can’t make something cheaper, then it’s a Waldes product.” The outspoken, gregarious Czech patriot was also a celebrated patron of the arts – especially of painter František Kupka, who helped create the company’s iconic symbol, the Koh-i-noor girl. Waldes and his partner Hynek Puc brought to market machine-pressed snaps on a scale never seen before.
“Surely, most people think every Czechoslovak is a born musician. Czechoslovaks are all over the world. If in the United States they are known especially as factory workers, miners, farmers and small businessmen, on the Balkan peninsula and in the Near East, our people are known as industrial leaders and pioneers. Czechoslovak entrepreneurs founded the sugar industry in the Balkans, as well as breweries and other agricultural industries. Several Czechoslovaks became very well-known inventors. Josef Ressel, for example, invented the ship screw (propeller) and František Křižík the Arc Lamp.”
– Jindřich Waldes, in an April 1938 broadcast in English, one of a half-dozen foreign languages that he mastered on his journey from intrepid travelling salesman to the business mogul known as the “button king”.
Jindřich Waldes was born in July 1876 in Nemyšl, a village in central Bohemian near the town of Tábor, where his father was an innkeeper and owned a small haberdashery. As a child, he was known to spend hours admiring the hats and accessories. The family, which was quite large, moved to Prague when Jindřich was in his teens. There, he enrolled in a trade school to study the feathered cushion business but left to take up a clerkship at Lokesch and Son, a company that made buttons and cufflinks.
When he just seventeen years old – thanks to his drive, affability and knowledge of foreign languages – Jindřich Waldes became the company’s business agent, and over the next few years, travelled extensively throughout Europe, as well as to Asia Minor and North Africa, to drum up sales.
At the age of twenty-one, Waldes went into business with the mechanical engineer and designer Hynek Puc, a former colleague at Lokesch and Son. And in 1902, their freshly minted firm set up shop in a Prague candle factory near Letná plein. They hired a single worker and an apprentice, to make dress fasteners – snaps – and later pins, needles and buttons.
'works of art' in miniature
According to the historian Miloslav Hlaváč, author of Creators of the Czech Miracle, Waldes viewed his snaps and other accessories not as utilitarian – everyday practical items – but as “works of art” in miniature. His business partner Puc, meanwhile, developed a machine, based on an existing patent, to replace the manual mounting of snaps – using tweezers – with the mechanical insetting of springs into studs.
That innovation – the first of many by Waldes’ company to improve special machinery and tools – enabled an unprecedented increase in production while the unparalleled salesmanship of Waldes ensured these “works of art” would spread across the globe.
By April 1907, to meet demand, they transferred manufacturing to a new factory, specially built in Prague’s Vršovice district. It was a state-of-the-art workplace, progressive even by today’s standards, with its airy rooms and high ceilings, onsite spa and gymnasium, even a library and a small park for employees.
The factory space reflected the value that Jindřich Waldes placed on artistry, craftsmanship and the people who worked for him over the coming two decades, as he alluded to in an earlier selection of the April 1938 broadcast that we heard at the beginning of this program.
“As a Czechoslovak self-made man, I can summarize my experiences in the words which have become my life’s conviction: Peace, and the political and economic strength of every state, depends first of all on good mutual relations between citizens. Peace among people means peace in the country itself.
“At present, the word ‘employee’ has no more its former derogatory connotation. We have built up in the economic sphere one front of citizens which has for its slogan ‘cooperation to the last’. It is based on the assumption that the employer needs full cooperation of his workers to carry out his plans and projects.”
Waldes certainly was a man with many a plan – not to mention some 465 patents. But that does not represent the total number of various modernizations, improvements or ideas, as the historian Hlaváč wrote:
“In the production of buttons, pins and other small goods, he left nothing to chance in the technological process. He set up a metal testing laboratory in his company, which was an absolute sensation for entrepreneurs in the early 20th century. He ignored sceptics who scoffed that buttons sold for a penny a pound, and competitors who found it funny that he did market research for such small products.”
‘A Mountain of Light’
One of Waldes’ great managerial and strategic moves was to give the snap the exotic name of “Koh-i-noor”, says Czech Radio moderator Josef Veselý, known for the popular series Wandering through the Czech past, which profiled the famous entrepreneur some years back.
“Waldes patented the invention of the clasp under the name of the largest gem in the world, the Indian diamond Koh-i-noor (weighing 186 carats). An old legend claims that the gem of the same name was placed in the eye of an ancient Indian god. When the precious stone was first seen by the Persian conquerors of India against the sun, they shouted ‘Koh-i-noor! – which means a ‘Mountain of Light!’ The gem was later set in the crown of the British queen.”
The iconic Koh-i-noor logo is said to have come to Waldes while he on an ocean liner voyage on one of his many dozen trips to the Americas. A fellow traveller, the American actress Elisabeth Coyens, hamming it up, had placed an enlarged snap he carried for advertising in her eye as if it were a monocle.
“That’s it! That will be our KIN (Koh-i-noor) girl! Cheerful, optimistic – a quality product and a nice face,” he said, and took a photo of Coyens in that pose.
Later, Waldes’ friend the painter František Kupka, immortalised the scene on canvas, while the brand was then designed by another friend, the prominent graphic artist Vojtěch Pressig. A picture of the snaps with the stamped letters K-I-N was used as a business logo, which help the company expand to foreign markets (branch offices were founded in Dresden – in 1904, Warsaw in 1908, Paris in 1911, and New York in 1912. By 1914, the company had 3,000 employees.
Just before the outbreak of the Second World War, Jindřich Waldes, who was of Jewish origin, had the foresight to send his family to safety overseas. Undoubtedly, when he made that April 1938 broadcast in English, the spectre of a war with Nazi Germany weighed heavily upon him.
“The Czechoslovak people believe that the present storm, of which so many are afraid, will go over. We are fearless, looking forward to what the future has in store for us. We believe that the present social circumstances are quite healthy, and we refuse every militarism.
“We are not content with having saved enough for old age but want to use our money for creative work. We have been afraid of nothing for one thousand years, and therefore boldly await the future. I should like to use this opportunity to say a word of greeting to our many countrymen in America and Canada, who by their manual and intellectual work are laying the foundation for a better future for us all.”
Buchenwald, death on the high seas
Jindřich Waldes was arrested by the Gestapo in September 1939, as were hundreds of prominent Czech figures. He ended up in Buchenwald, but according to family lore, was released after intermediaries paid the Nazis a huge ransom, says the Prague gallery director Vladimír Lekeš, who knew Waldes’ son George well.
“Jindřich Waldes, as owner of the Koh-i-noor factory, supported Czech art, Czech literature, theatre and so on, especially the painter František Kupka. He bought paintings from Kupka and also sold them in America for him, giving the painter twice the commission…
“His son George told me that his father had been interned by the Gestapo and had been ‘bought’ by his family. The ransom was said to have been a million dollars. Jindřich Waldes boarded on a ship in Lisbon, bound for New York. But he died en route before landing in Havana. The family believes that he was poisoned by the Gestapo.”