Discovering Sweden: From Clocks to Fishing Gear, Bearings to Cars, and a Company that does not Exist

2010-10-12. Published in Language & Culture
by Nils Pasi

From clocks to fishing gear, from bearings to cars, and 'that's not Swedish at all!' – what's that all about? Taking a closer look today at things made in Sweden, I made a few interesting discoveries. To me, the most interesting one was probably that Bjurefors Glass neither does, nor ever has made glass. In fact, the company does not even exist, and as far as I can find, it never has. This is very interesting to me, who have always thought of the nonexistent glass manufacturer as a major competitor of Orrefors's. It makes me a bit wary, to be honest, for I cannot help but wonder how many other great Swedish companies does not exist…

...Not that many, it turns out, although I was surprised to learn that Volvo started out as bearings from a famous Gothenburg company before becoming cars. Now, of course, Volvo's car manufacturing is owned by Chinese Geely Automobiles, but then, it has not been part of Swedish Volvo since 1999 when it was sold to the Ford Motor Company. Swedish Volvo (latin for 'I Roll') does still 'roll', however, with trucks, busses, construction equipment and so on still being manufactured.

While the car manufacturer Volvo was founded within SKF (Svenska Kullagerfabriken - Eng. Swedish Bearings Manufacturer) in 1927, the name Volvo had already been registered as a separate company within SKF sixteen years earlier with the intention of being used for a special series of ball bearings. The bearings ended up under the SKF brand instead, however, leaving SKF sales manager Assar Gabrielsson and engineer Gustav Larson free to use Volvo for the cars they built in 1926/7. Their aim was to construct cars capable of withstanding the sometimes harsh Swedish climate, which history has proven they certainly succeeded at. Volvo and SKF separated in 1935.

Another Swedish car manufacturer, SAAB, founded in Trollhättan in 1937, sold its car division to General Motors in 1990, who later sold it again to its current owners, Spyker Cars, in 2010. This 'trend' of selling companies or parts of companies to owners abroad, raises the question of how we should define 'made in Sweden'. Perhaps it should be reserved to products made by, for instance, SKF which is still a Swedish company, or maybe we should be more liberal in our use of the term and have it encompass all things assembled or manufactured in Sweden. Fortunately, I do not have to make that decision, as the rest of the companies mentioned in this article are still Swedish-based… I think.

I say 'I think' because, let's face it, a company that starts out by making clocks (A B Ur) and ends up making fishing gear (ABU Svängsta, later ABU Garcia) is bound to have some surprises in store for us. Apparently, the founder's son, Göte Borgström, was very much into fishing, so when fishing reels were in short supply during World War II, he decided that the clock manufacturer should start making fishing gear instead. They were highly successful in their new field, chosen as a 'Purveyor To The Royal Swedish Court' and earning the right to put the Swedish Royal crest on their products. At some point, they partnered with the New York based Charles Garcia & Company, and later the New Jersey based Garcia Tackle Company, which they ended up buying in 1980. ABU Garcia, originally A B Ur and ABU Svängsta, was founded in Svängsta and could still be a Swedish-owned company, although the information I have been able to dig up is vague at best.

And vague, too, I would describe the exact nature of the cooperation between Japanese Sony and Swedish Ericsson. Well, the cooperation is not vague, of course, but the information I have been able to find is. Ericsson, named after its founder Lars Magnus Ericsson, first saw the light in Kista, Stockholm, back in 1876. Unlike ABU and Volvo, Ericsson has not ventured greatly from their original area of expertise. They have, in short, always been in the telecommunication and data communication systems business. Ericsson invented the today wildly used Bluetooth technology in 1994, and formed a joint venture with Japanese Sony in 2001 for their mobile phones, which gave birth to 'Sony Ericsson'.

Lastly we return to glass and a Swedish manufacturer of glass that does, in fact, exist. Orrefors Kosta Boda is the largest glassworks in the Nordic countries, and having produced glass since 1742, I would guess it to be one of the oldest glassworks as well. In 2008, Orrefors Kosta Boda had a turnover of 475 million Swedish kronor, of which the Swedish market accounted for 55%, the US market and the rest of the world for 25% each. Their unique glass creations are, well, unique and handcrafted, and therefore expensive. They are also exceptionally well made, I understand, and thus in high demand. The glassworks has now resumed making unique lightbulbs for the first time since the 1950's.

So, from clocks to fishing gear, bearings to cars, and a company that does not exist – Sweden has it all! Tune in again on Thursday when The Native takes a closer look at the Swedish Dala horse. But first, Misi Reviews on Wednesday!

/Nils, team 2010