Six Million Dollar Rivet

While most men panned for gold in 1800s California, one man gained a greater fortune from copper rivets.

In 1872, wholesale fabric distributor Levi Strauss took up on an invitation to partner in a patent application with one of his customers, Jacob Davis. Davis had used copper rivets from horse tack to reinforce areas in work pants that were a source of common rips. Customers liked the new, sturdier “jeans” and both Davis and Strauss saw commercial potential.

On May 20, 1873 a U.S. patent was awarded to Jacob Davis and Levi Strauss for IMPROVEMENT IN FASTENING POCKET-OPENINGS. The California copper rivet rush was on! Levi entrusted Jacob with a new San Francisco factory to manufacture riveted work clothes. The patent entailed the Levi Strauss & Co. as the only maker of pants with riveted pockets for the life of the patent, about 12 years.

But Jacob Davis brought more than a “riveting” solution to a problem. He had also been sewing a big marking in heavy, orange thread on the back pockets of his work. Two connecting double arches met in the center of each hip pocket. This design trademark, along with resiliency of product, prospered both men throughout their lifetimes. Levi Strauss died with a $6 million fortune.

In 1906, the Levi Strauss & Co. factory was destroyed by the great San Francisco earthquake. The facilities and all equipment, materials, and stock were consumed by fires that raged in the aftermath. The only thing left was intellectual property and reputation.

Levi Strauss & Co. rebuilt. At the dawn of globalization, it was hit by “similar-like” clothing manufacturers. The Chinese were old hands in the textile industry and tough competitors. Levi Strauss & Co. sued an offender in Shanghai Pudong Court.

The Chinese court ruled favorably for Levi Strauss & Co. It said the distinctive orange stitching and placement of it on rear pockets was a trademark not to be fooled with.

Today, in 2013, after 140 years, Jacob’s desire to stand distinctively in the market continues to carry forth the brand called Levi’s.

(Source: “Levi Strauss: a short biography” by Lynn Downey, 2008)