Peter Florjancic put his success as an inventor down to being in the right place at the right time. In the summer of 1947, he was lounging by the pool at Monte Carlo’s Beach Hotel when his daughter accidentally splashed water over Ilhamy Hussein, the Pasha of Egypt and a wealthy associate of King Farouk. The next day, the childless Pasha invited Florjancic to dine in his hotel room and casually offered to buy the girl from him. Coughing on his caviar, Florjancic politely declined. Instead he suggested they go into business together.
By that point Florjancic already had several patents under his belt. These included designs for a six-color pencil, ski bindings and a stylish cigarette lighter with a side-mounted ignition, which he sold to Dunhill and was later used by Sean Connery as 007 in Dr No. Once he secured the Pasha’s backing, he set about trying some of his bolder ideas. “With such access to royal funds,” he recalled, “I could invent and develop anything I wanted.”
His first big success was a compact perfume spray, which he sold to Elizabeth Arden, the founder of the cosmetics company. It took three years and about two million Swiss francs to develop. This was followed by lightweight plastic ice skates and photographic slide frames that were picked up by Kodak and sold by the billion. His most successful money maker was a machine for injecting plastic into molds, for which he received 1.5 million German marks plus royalties.
Florjancic did not believe in setting money aside for a rainy day. In his view, “money is worth nothing if you don’t waste it”. So when it started to come in by the “truck load”, he proceeded to spend wildly. “I had seven houses, and I squandered it all,” he said. “But I had a great time.”
For 13 years he and his wife, Verena, lived in Monte Carlo. A square-jawed former Olympic ski jumper with a gift for storytelling, he blended seamlessly into the city’s glittering social life, as did Verena, a former model. Between dinners at Christian Dior’s palatial villa, games of roulette with Winston Churchill and dances with the Hapsburgs, they rubbed shoulders with Brigitte Bardot, Frank Sinatra, Salvador Dalí, Colette and Audrey Hepburn. In 1957 Florjancic made a brief cameo alongside Marlene Dietrich in the film The Monte Carlo Story.
“I had seven houses, and I squandered it all. But I had a great time.”
By his reckoning, he got through a tuxedo a week, so frantic was the pace of his social life, while his wife had an open account at Dior. He took pride in the fact that all their clothes were handmade, down to his chinchilla suit.
King Farouk, who often visited Monte Carlo in his gold-plated yacht, once asked Florjancic what he would like for his birthday. In jest, Florjancic replied that he quite fancied an Aston Martin. When the day arrived he duly found the car parked outside his house, “wrapped in cellophane with a bow on top”. Marriage was no impediment to Florjancic’s gallantry and he found the car helped to win him more admirers. Eventually he left Monte Carlo, disenchanted with the concrete towers that were springing up in the city, and lived in Italy, Switzerland and Germany. Possessing a childlike sense of mischief, Florjancic kept a pair of military-grade binoculars on the mantelpiece of his Florence penthouse so he could see what his neighbors were up to; in Montreux, on Lake Geneva, he lived next door to Charlie Chaplin, who became his drinking partner.
In his biography, Jump into the Cream, he reflected: “I’ve had five citizenships, 43 cars and the longest passport. The profession of inventor forced me to spend 25 years in hotels, four years in cars, three years on trains, a year and a half on airplanes and a year on board of ships.”
Peter Florjancic was born in 1919 in the Slovenian resort town of Bled, the scion of a wealthy hotel-owning family. His grandfather was the town’s mayor and his uncle owned the local castle. As a child he played the accordion at the court of the Yugoslavian royal family. Aged 16, he became the youngest member of the Yugoslav ski jump team and competed at the 1936 Winter Olympics, held in Nazi Germany, where he was congratulated by Heinrich Himmler, head of the SS.
He first showed his flair for invention at the age of six, when he fashioned a sweatband for himself. “I would roll around in the mud and get my whole face dirty,” he recalled. “So I cut a sock, put it on my hand and wiped my face with it.” His mother often scolded him for wiping his nose with his shirt sleeve, so he also made a fabric cover for his cuffs, which allowed him to continue the habit.
A poor student, he opted for textile school over university. Aged 18 he opened a factory, using a loom that he had designed himself. After making a scarf for the Queen of Yugoslavia, he established himself as the official supplier of cloth to the royal household. Soon he was making more money than he knew what to do with, the first of several fortunes he made and lost.
When the Germans invaded in 1941, Florjancic and members of his family were briefly interned at a concentration camp. Two years later, after he was conscripted to fight in the German army, he and a friend fled to Austria, pretending they were going on a skiing holiday and disguised as tourists. Once there, they faked their deaths in an avalanche and crossed the border into Switzerland. Fearful of German reprisals, he did not reveal the ruse to his family until after the war and they held a funeral for him in Bled.
He had brought a lot of cash with him, but he worried that it would arouse the suspicions of the Swiss authorities so dumped it at the border and arrived in Bern a penniless refugee. Soon afterwards he patented a weaving machine that could be operated by disabled people; it fetched him 100,000 Swiss francs. Florjancic guessed that the sum was “enough to buy three luxury houses”. He travelled straight to St Moritz, checked into the ski resort’s most expensive hotel and blew it all, even outspending the Aga Khan, a fellow guest. Then he went to Zurich where he met his wife. Together they had two daughters, Marion, and Cvetka, who was killed in a car crash in 1972.
He and a friend fled to Austria. Once there, they faked their deaths in an avalanche and crossed the border into Switzerland.
Florjancic once told his biographer: “Drop me anywhere in the world and in a year’s time I’ll entertain you there at my house.” Not all of his inventions were successful, however. Of his 400 patents, 41 were brought to life. Among his flops were a dancing belt to help couples to keep in time and a shoe guard designed to keep drivers from scuffing their heels.
In 1948 he narrowly missed out on inventing the first plastic zip. In tests, his prototype worked perfectly. However, when he ran a hot iron over it during a demonstration, the thing melted and got stuck. Crestfallen, he withdrew the patent and earned nothing when another inventor later redesigned it using sturdier materials. “The champagne we had ready to celebrate we drank in sorrow, not success,” he recalled.
Nine years later he patented an early forerunner to airbags in cars, designed to prevent vehicles from sinking, but his prototypes kept exploding.
Florjancic’s best ideas came from observing people. The idea for his perfume spray, for instance, occurred to him after watching well-coiffed ladies in Monte Carlo douse themselves in scent using devices “the size of gasoline pumps.” Once he found himself at a party without pen and paper when inspiration struck, so he wrote his idea on a lady’s back using lipstick and photographed his handiwork. “Gold lies on the streets and you just need to dig it up with ideas,” he said. “Ideas are like the shovel.”
Invention, Florjancic believed, required a keen sense of fun. He displayed his on a trip to Italy, when he played recordings of loud sex noises from his hotel room for several hours so that he could enjoy the admiring looks of other guests the following morning. On another occasion, he hid a mousetrap under his car seat to ensnare the finger of a customs officer who zealously searched his vehicle whenever he crossed the Swiss-German border.
He neglected to save for a pension and continued to work well into his nineties, despite suffering from blindness in his later years. Florjancic did so happily, believing that it kept his mind clear. He once remarked that even Alfred Hitchcock would struggle to make a film about his life. He returned to Bled in 1998, aged 79, having promised his mother that he would come home to die and confident in the belief that he would not live much past 80.
“I’ve had a great life, so much living, full of all these things,” he told an interviewer in 2015. “Sometimes I wonder what I would do if I were born again. I reckon I would have done something similar.”
Peter Florjancic, inventor, was born on March 5, 1919. He died on November 14, 2020, aged 101