“I constantly think of making inventions, it’s a disease”
Sitting in his office at Bled’s Hotel Kompas where he has been living and working for 25 years now, the humorous 95 year-old gentleman chatters eagerly, surrounded by photographs of the celebs he met and his biggest sales hits gathered on his desk. The Slovene, to whom we owe the perfume sprayer, the DIA-frame and the induction cigarette lighter among others, has known numerous successes and many failures, always getting back on his feet with another invention at the back of his mind.
Millionaire a few times but now living of his current projects, he gladly shares memories of the monarchs, actors and socialites he sipped champagne with, relics of the French Riviera’s golden era. As he speaks, sometimes reaching for his mobile phone in a rather anachronistic move for a man who used to drink with Charlie Chaplin and Winston Churchill, the story of his life unfolds, like a movie where faking death in avalanche, yacht cruises, sleepless nights and gold bars meet hard work, industrial breakthroughs and plastic revolution.
Peter’s career as an inventor started 75 years ago and there’s no end in sight. Photo credit: Peter Florjančič; Manon Pierre
How has this epic life as an inventor started? Have you studied a particular field when you were young?
I finished textile high school in Bled, my hometown, and started a weaving business. Working on a loom I designed myself, I made a scarf then for the Queen of Yugoslavia, and soon became the official supplier of fabric to the Royal House. Soon after, the Germans occupied the country; I was thus requisitioned to join the army. As going to war was against my convictions, I decided to escape to neutral Switzerland via Austria across the glacier. Being a deserter, I would have been hung if they had caught me, so I faked my own death in a snow-slip and disappeared in Switzerland.
So when did you start inventing?
Once in Bern refugee camp, I built an improved versionof my loom from memory. Foldable and designed to operate by the disabled, my machine knew an immediate success. Then I met the Yugoslav Jew Emil Boral in Zürich, who became my lifetime business teacher. He sold the patent of the loom to a Swiss company for 300,000 francs, while I would probably have sold it for a hundredth of this sum. After Boral deducted his commission, I received 100,000 francs, with which I could still have bought 100 kg of gold at the time. This big sale was the moment I told myself I would become an inventor.
As we were eating caviar, I was wondering what this meeting was about, when King Farouk casually proposed to buy my daughter. I almost had a stroke”
How did you manage to do business in so many different fields?
Things took off from there. My work with plastic, a magic material at the time, began in Davos. I learned how to sell my ideas and met enthusiastic businessmen and manufacturers in various industries who were eager to develop my products. Between 1943 and 1946, I invented the now famous cigarette lighter with side ignition for Dunhill, ski bindings, a bed desk and a six-colour pencil among others.
Was the lighter your main achievement then?
My major breakthrough happened in 1946, when I went down to Monte Carlo with my family on a 14-day holiday that eventually lasted for 14 years. There, I created the perfume atomiser spray thanks to collaboration with King Farouk of Egypt. He was my financier; if I hadn’t met him I don’t know if it would have been possible. The process took three years and it cost about two million Swiss francs to complete. This invention allowed me to sign a lucrative contract with Elizabeth Arden in New York and worked with luxury brands such as Dior and Guerlin. With Farouk’s support, I was able to work further on my plastic injection and moulding machines, which I used to develop numerous inventions later on. The plastic DIA-frame from slide-projector for example was another big hit. Everyone sold them; Kodak, Agfa, and Fuji made billions of these. I earned so much that I had seven houses.
How did you approach King Farouk, how did you pitch your project to such a wealthy man?
Back then, the business spirit in Monte Carlo was a bit more romantic than it is today. Also, I was at the right place at the right time. One day, my daughter Marion was playing at the poolside and accidentally spilled water on Ilhamy Hussein Pasha, the right hand of King Farouk. I ran after her and punished her. The next day, a small truck full of toys was delivered to our room, as well as an invitation from the Pasha. As we were eating caviar, I was wondering what this meeting was about, when he casually proposed to buy my daughter, since he didn’t have any children himself. I almost had a stroke; they thought they had money and could buy everything. As I politely declined his offer, he said he found me very sympathetic and inquired what my occupation was. When he heard that I was an inventor and that I wanted to modernise perfume bottles, he suggested backing me up. This is how the joint venture FLORILHAM (from FLOR-jančič and ILHAMi Husein Pasha) was born. With such royal access to funding, I could invent and develop anything I wanted.
How was your life when you were wealthy?
When I became a discrete millionaire, people came to me trying to sell me castles and villas. I told them that I didn’t have the money but they said “you just sign, we’ll settle it”. I knew so many famous people then; Coco Chanel, [Winston] Churchill, Josephine Baker, Brigitte Bardot, Marilyn Monroe… I cannot possibly name them all. When I was living in Montreux, the most beautiful place in Switzerland, my neighbour was Charlie Chaplin. We often drank together. Back then, he was 82 and came there with his daughter, Geraldine. I really learned how to live in Monte Carlo. One day, King Farouk pointed out that my birthday was comingand asked me what I wished for. I said I wanted an Aston Martin, as a joke. On my birthday, the car was in front of my house, wrapped in cellophane with a bow on top. That car was the best for meeting women; you just opened the door… We had it all back then, my wife would pick a new Dior dress every week and I don’t know how many suits I owned, I even had one made of chinchilla.
On screen with legend Marlene Dietrich (Peter sitting on the right) Photo credit: Peter Florjančič
Why have you never built a big company, rather than inventing things one after another?
I had a large development bureau and even factories sometimes, but indeed, I constantly went on to new creations, even when my projects were successful. With a creative and playful spirit like mine, I have to move on, always. I’m thinking all the time how to make new inventions, it’s a disease. Besides, as they say, everything has its end, only the sausage has two. The evolution of materials and technologies constantly forces us to come up with new patents and products. For example, when digital photography came, it was the end of my DIA-frame, a product that employed 2000 people in five countries for 25 years. Today is the age of the resourceful, it’s the age of ‘I don’t know how to go forward, but I can’t go back’.
How do you come up with new ideas? What’s the intellectual process?
I listen to people, I listen to their needs. Once you identify a problem, you try to solve it. That’s why I’m still creating products today and I’m very engaged into making practical things. But you need to have a market first, when you have it, you feel it and you see what already exists. Then you have to make a product you can patent, otherwise it’s not worth anything. Also, the idea itself is worthless if you don’t know how to sell it. You have to say this is how we’ll make it. You have to come to the right person and only once.
In Austria the DIA-frame and my ski stands saw the light. I even won the Austrian National Award for a plastic container”
You spent some time in Austria. Why and what does it mean to you today?
Living in Austria was a great experience, especially in terms of inventions. I moved from Monte Carlo with my family to Villach, where we lived from 1962 to 1965, and where I continued to invent in my Techno Studio. I kept working in the field of plastic injection and founded two companies, in Vaduz and Villach. This is actually where the DIA-frame and my ski stands saw the light. I even won the Austrian National Award for a plastic container that I conceived at that time.
Why did you leave Austria again?
Soon I felt I had to move on, as usual. German factory owners invited me to work with them, so I landed between 1965 and 1975 in Garmisch Partenkirchen, where I turned a barn into a renowned restaurant. After the tragic death of my daughter Cvetka, my family and I moved again, this time to an area near Wallgau for a much-needed change of scenery.
Why did you come back to Slovenia eventually?
I assured my mother that I will die in Bled. I went to the cemetery to do a market analysis. I said when I’ll be 82 I’ll come back. I fulfilled my promise because I had the best mother in the world. But then I realised I came at least 15 years too early. Now, I’m waiting to die [he says with a grin].
What should be written on your grave, what do you want to be remembered for?
Well, actually I’ll have a phone on my grave. I have the stories written already, so you’ll be able to listen to all my great achievements there.
Memories from the past: Peter at a party, as ski jumper of the Olympic Yugoslavian team; paying Kitzbühel a visit and with his Verena with whom he was married over 70 years. Photo credit: Peter Florjančič
What is your best memory from this five-generation life?
Oh Mary, so many things happened! Discovering sky jumping, selling my first patent, drinking cocktails with Coco Chanel, discussions with my friend Jacques Cousteau, parties on Farouk’s yacht… Living like a millionaire in Monte Carlo was a fantastic. My favourite time was in Florence though; I owned a great house there, a penthouse. I had military binoculars, and could look all around my neighbour’s places.
I’m sure there are plenty memorable events but is there one that especially sticks out?
But overall, my most beautiful memory is certainly when Otto von Habsburg, who was still an emperor then, danced a solo dance, the Vienna waltz with my darling wife Verena.
Do you regret anything?
No. If I lived again, I’d take my wife on leasing and have a parrot at home to talk to. (laughs)
And what’s next?
I have just invented a tool that makes eating spagetti easier. It’s a plate with integrated indents in spoon shape at the bottom – so from now on you can eat spaghetti without a spoon AND a fork.