The exciting, brilliant story of Meopta

Examine this precious adventure through a lense. Watch it from close up. Put the past of a country and a trademark together, by focussing through glass filters, the lenses of Meopta.

Eighty years after its foundation in Přerov, Czechoslovakia, the company today is one of the most sought-after, avant-garde production houses in the whole world, for optical systems of precision destined both for civil and military applications. To celebrate the anniversary this year, various conferences, screenings and theme days have been scheduled from May to October under the title of Meopta80 at the Comenius museum of Přerov.

Like the story of various other Czech brands, and if possible even more so, this story is very closely connected with the events of the country in which it was founded in 1933, under the name of Optikotechna, by Dr. Alois Mazurek and the engineer Alois Beneš. The debut arrived in the form of a first, limited production of optical equipment for photographic enlargements and movie projectors, some of which, as the makers of today say, are still operating and are used in Russia. Soon, however, towards the end of the 1930s, success and demand pushed the company to develop and sell a more complex and varied range of products: binoculars, spotting scopes, telescopes, cameras, slide projectors and cameras. Out of these, one, the TLR Flexaret camera, has become an icon of the Meopta, remaining in production until 1970 with subsequent models always displaying improvements. The Flexaret automat VI and VII are two classics, milestones in the history of analog photography, which are still used today and sought after by professional and amateur enthusiasts. But let’s go back to history and its upheavals. In particular, to 1939 when the factory in Přerov, three hundred kilometres from Prague, was taken over by the troops of the Nazi occupation. Seventeen employees were killed, and are still commemorated today by a plaque on the main building of the plant. The technology and the lens of Optikotechna were recalibrated to the war effort. The manufacturing of civilian equipment was being decimated in favor of a massive production of sighting systems for the Wehrmacht, the German armed forces: rangefinders, periscopes, binoculars and spotting scopes are some of the tools with which the soldiers of the Third Reich were equipped. In the papers left by the occupants, the Optikotechna was concealed behind the strange code name “Dow”. Only at the end of the war, in 1946, was the company nationalized, with the name changing to Meopta, sparking a major reorganization of production in precision optics for civilian use. However, very soon, once Czechoslovakia entered the Soviet orbit and adhered to the Warsaw Pact, the production house once again was forced to revise its models and its “catalog” with tools which served to arm the various countries of Pact. This was particularly the case in the years from 1971 to 1989, when 75% of the items produced in Přerov were intended to arm the armies engaged in the static Cold War. Thus, during the Second World War, only with more renewed and refined technology, the Meopta became the point of reference for Eastern Europe regarding riflescopes, binoculars, range finders and periscopes for tanks. It was not until the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union, as well as the Velvet Revolution in Czech lands, when the parabola of the company took an unexpected trajectory of extraordinary success. The new beginning did not lack difficulties. The country gradually transformed its production system into a capitalist logic through a profound economic and employment crisis. The Meopta had to restructure and rethink once again about what to do and how to do it. The year 1992 was the year of complete privatization, followed by the arrival of Vladimír Chlup, at the head of the company. It was he, who sought to revitalize Meopta on the market, but it was mainly due to the large investments by Paul Rausnitz, that the production house of optics has become the giant that it is today. The Rausnitz family, originally from Jablonec, now has full control. The personal story of Paul Rausnitz is no less turbulent, than that of the company that he took over in 1999, returning from the United States. A history of escapes, first from the Nazis aged eleven, imprisoned with his family in Ostrava before they fled together to the east, then from Soviet tanks in 1968, before finally finding refuge in the United States. A successful present, crowned in 2008 by the Gratias Agit award given to him by the Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg: a recognition which each year is dedicated to compatriots who have promoted the country abroad. Over the last twenty years, Meopta has established itself as a global reference point for high precision optical products, but also as a research and development centre on the design and assembly of products. It is precisely this, which is one of the most impressive aspects of this company. The fact that within the 135 thousand square metres of its production space, each object is designed and assembled in its entirety. On the one hand you are working on optical components such as lenses and prisms, on the other mechanical ones, such as the chassis (frame) of rifle scopes or binoculars. The accessories and the painting and varnishing of each individual product are no exception. Today the company, which exports to 55 countries, employs approximately 2,500 people in the Czech Republic and the United States, where it operates the subsidiary Meopta USA, Inc. Out of these, many are women. The reason is explained by Miloš Slaný, the sales director of the Czech branch: “We must consider three basic elements: the assembly does not require particular physical strength, while women have more minute hands, more suitable for handling small parts, and finally, the most important thing, women are more patient than men”. Overall, from the group’s turnover, about 80% comes from the sale of highly specialized optical products for the industry, as well as components for sensors, photoelectric cells and lasers, while the remaining 20% comes from precision sports optics: riflescopes, binoculars and spotting scopes (special telescopes). The leading market for the sale of these products is Germany, followed by the United States. Leafing through the catalog, you realize that the innovation of certain lenses, in some areas, is so specialized that it is difficult to grasp just how innovative and new they are. This is not the case with the Meostar S2 82 spotting scope. A useful tool for enthusiasts of digiscoping, a photographic technique that allows you to take pictures of people at a great distance. The latest model can be connected, for the first time, directly to an iPhone allowing you to capture close-up photos with your mobile phone. Once again, the artisans of Přerov, have carefully aimed, and hit the right target.

by Edoardo Malvenuti