TUCSON, ARIZ. — Americans saw their first yo-yo in 1904 at the St. Louis World's Fair. However, no one thought to manufacture them until the 1920s when Pedro Flores, a Filipino immigrant, began crafting them from wood in San Francisco.
Since then, primitive wooden yo-yos have evolved into high-tech playthings, nearly all made of plastic and some containing such things as steel ball-bearings, brake pads, and brass axles.
They're not your grandfather's yo-yo and they wouldn't fit your grandfather's budget, either. Yo-yos made by Playmaxx Inc. of Tucson range in price from $7.95-$149.
Dozens, perhaps hundreds, of companies around the world make yo-yos, but three dominate the U.S. market — Playmaxx; Yomega Corp. of Fall River, Mass.; and Duncan Toys Co., a Middlefield, Ohio-based affiliate of Flambeau Corp. of Baraboo, Wis.
Duncan can claim the title of yo-yo pioneer. Don Duncan, an entrepreneur who already had introduced Good Humor Ice Cream, was on a business trip to California when he bought one of Flores' yo-yos. He was so intrigued by the present he bought his son that the elder Duncan arranged to market the toy. Eventually, he bought the company and started making the famous Duncan yo-yos.
Flambeau Products Corp. in Middlefield started manufacturing the yo-yos for Duncan in 1955. Some 13 years later Flambeau bought the Duncan name, after a legal dispute over a trademark of the word ``yo-yo'' drove Duncan's firm into bankruptcy. The court had ruled that yo-yo was a generic term.
Bob Malowney, whose Bird-in-Hand toy store and yo-yo museum sponsors an independent annual tournament in Chico, Calif., has praise for newer firms Yomega and Playmaxx.
He said the Proyo model by Playmaxx is ``absolutely incredible.''
``It is up there with the most technologically advanced yo-yos made in the history of the universe,'' he added.
Malowney's national yo-yo competition attracted 200 competitors last year, plus an audience of 1,500. The next tournament will be Oct. 2 in Chico.
Yomega was founded in 1984 and sells its yo-yos in 32 countries. Its products cost $9-$90. The primary component is plastic, but marketing manager Jane Howes would not provide details on how much plastic the company buys, how many pieces it produces or the company's total sales.
Malowney said Duncan has fallen behind in quality and size of sales, but Andrew Arvesen, Duncan's marketing director, contends Duncan is still tops.
``The market for Duncan yo-yos is big. You're talking about the No. 1 name in yo-yos,'' he said.
The range of retail prices for Duncan yo-yos is $3-$15. He declined to reveal the quantity of Duncan production or sales.
Playmaxx, however, revealed all. It uses about 1 million pounds a year of glycol-modified PET resin from Eastman Chemical Co. Only one of its yo-yos, the most expensive, is made of anodized aluminum. That $149 model holds the world record for the longest sleeper — 7 minutes and 8 seconds, according to Michael Leonard, Playmaxx executive vice president.
Playmaxx was founded in 1974 by a retiree who treated it more as a hobby than a business. Tom Van Dan Elzen, an engineer, bought the business in 1996 and took it from a typical year's production of 5,000-10,000 units, with only three employees, to last year's output of 8 million yo-yos, for a gross of $20 million with a peak of 200 employees.
One reason: Van Dan Elzen redesigned the yo-yo, shifting the weight from the center to the rim, which gives the toy a flywheel effect, creating a longer spin.
Van Dan Elzen's youngest son, Hans, is a world-class yo-yo competitor and promotes Playmaxx yo-yos as part of a team of demonstrators who travel the world. Playmaxx also has a research and development department headed by Frank Gubernick, who is responsible for three recently issued patents and nearly a dozen pending.
Gubernick said he has chosen PETG because ``it has excellent durability and it has a more tactile, slightly soft, feel — it doesn't break easily.''
Playmaxx does not have its own molding facility, but works with injection molders in Tucson and Phoenix who make the components for assembly in Playmaxx's Tucson facility. Playmaxx keeps the two molders busy.
``We own 14 molds. Last year, we had a minimum of five molds running 24 hours a day, seven days a week cranking out parts,'' Leonard said.