Stories of Czech Brands
When Bohemia was still a part of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy, it was already considered the empire’s most industrially developed country. After the establishment of an independent Czechoslovakia in 1918, the diligence, craftsmanship, and skill of “Czech hands” could finally be completely utilized. Czechoslovakia soon became famous throughout Europe (and the world) for a number of products that often overwhelmed their competition. Probably the best known such phenomenon is the Baťa brand (although this story, like many others, began back in the 19th century), rightly considered a classic story of well-deserved success. Its history began in 1894, when three siblings established a shoe factory in Zlín; ten years later they were producing thousands of pairs of shoes a day. The story of the Škoda Auto car manufacturer, which celebrated 125 years in 2020, is somewhat similar. Its founders, Václav Laurin and Václav Klement, began repairing bicycles in 1895. They gradually started to produce them, which was merely a step towards the production of motorcycles, followed by the first cars (Voiturette) at the beginning of the 20th century. Today, Škoda Auto is probably the best known and most successful of the Czech brands. Another refreshing example is the story of one of the world’s most famous beers, Prazdroj Urquell from the city of Plzeň. Paradoxically, it began with a Bavarian brewer who was invited by the people of Plzeň in 1842 to help them brew a beer of better quality than what their burgher brewery had managed to create so far. This single drop of intention went a long way – today the Pilsner Urquell brand is synonymous for quality beer, and about a third of all beers brewed in the world are of the Pilsen type. Still, we mustn’t forget about its competitor from southern Bohemia, the equally famous Budweis (Budějovice) Budvar. We can still stay in České Budějovice, since this is the home of a company founded by Josef Hardtmuth in 1790 and named after the famous Koh-i-noor diamond. The company received a patent for the production of pencil leads in 1802, and today it is one of the world’s largest manufacturers of writing and office supplies. The history of Prim watches is relatively young. The Chronotechna company in Nové Město nad Metují started producing wristwatches and pocket watches after the Second World War. During the communist regime it was the state’s monopoly manufacturer, but today it is known as a prestigious brand that also produces custom made luxury watches for demanding customers. And who wouldn’t know that building kit whose metal colored parts with holes all connect with screws and nuts with a diameter of 3.5 mm? That’s right, most Europeans are well familiar with the Merkur kit from Police nad Metují, whose history has lasted for a hundred years. It was even used by Professor Otto Wichterle to make the first gel contact lenses in 1961; another “Czech” truly global and groundbreaking inventions, by the way. The successful and talented designer František Janeček (1878–1941) originally produced weapons, but it was paradoxically the economic crisis in the 1920s that forced him to change his production program and start focusing on motorcycles. And although there were about two dozen motorcycle factories in what was then Czechoslovakia, all of them were eventually surpassed by his JAWA. In 1943, the ESA company was founded and began to produce irons in Hlinsko and later shifted its production program to vacuum cleaners. Today, under the ETA brand, the company is by far the largest manufacturer of home appliances in the Czech Republic. The Zetor brand emerged by simply combining the European pronunciation of the letter “Z”, part of the emblem of Brno’s Zbrojovka, and the last two letters of the word “tractor”. It began producing tractors just after World War II, and by 1961, only 16 years after its launch, it had created an unbelievable 160,000 tractors. Even today, Zetor continues to be a symbol of strength and reliability. In 1857, master carpenter Michael Thonet started bending solid beech wood to create an elegant café chair (marked as model no. 214), which was the beginning of the story of a famous furniture company. Today, it continues its successful tradition under the brand name TON. For more than a hundred years (since 1913), practically every Czech household makes use of the popular alcohol-based solution of essential oils, herbs, and natural menthol known as Francovka ALPA designed to fight tired muscles. Today, over 10 million bottles are produced in Velké Meziříčí every year. One of the largest hat manufacturers in the world is the TONAK hat factory in Nový Jičín. It’s no wonder that they have plenty of experience with production, since they’ve been making headwear here since 1630!
In 1807, the Karlovy Vary pharmacist Josef Becher mixed an “English Bitter” consisting of 32 herbs for his spa guests; not only did his recipe work, but it was extremely popular among its users. This gave the pharmacist’s son Jan reason to open factory in 1838 for the production of today’s popular Becherovka. In 1922, this unique bitter aperitif (or digestif), its composition known to only two people in the world, was trademarked.
There are many, many more similar great and interesting tales to be found in our history (and present), but to list them would naturally extend beyond the scope of this humble guidebook.