Years ago, a friend presented Phoenix business owner Steve Kafka with polymer crystals that were used on golf-course grass to allow it to absorb nitrates.
But the turning point was when the friend showed Kafka how incredibly absorbent the material was when introduced to water.
"He said, 'If anyone can do something with this, you can,'" Kafka said.
Kafka and his wife, Pam, put their ingenuity and artistic creativity to work, sewed the polymer into high-quality fabric, fashioned it into a scarf and in 1991, Kafka's Kool Tie was born.
After the tie is soaked and the polymer crystals absorb the water, it stabilizes body temperature through evaporation when placed by the carotid arteries and major vascular networks, such as those at the back of the neck. It also stabilizes blood pressure.
Nearly 20 years and countless competitors' knock-offs later, Kafka's creation has gained a loyal following of medical professionals, government public-service departments and patients suffering from heat-related ailments.
The Kool Tie remains a popular item on the shelves at national outdoors store REI. The continuous cooling effect lasts up to three days, and unlike similar devices, the tie does not have to be frozen to be, two features that are attractive to hikers, said Chad Vincent, manager of the REI store in Paradise Valley. Vincent said the ties become more popular as Arizonans ease into the summer.
"It's not like a spray bottle where you have to be active in using them. It's an easy tool you put on and let it do its work. It's not something you have to put a lot of energy into to stay cool," he said.
When Kafka started Kool Ties, the Boston native was already a well-known artist whose pinstriping garnered international attention on the vehicle road circuit. He saw other freeze-and-wear products that were designed to cool down the body but instead resulted in iciness that often caused more discomfort or frostbite.
Pam, who is in charge of manufacturing and design, made the first 3,500 Kool Ties in her home sewing room. Professional athletes, weekend warriors, policemen and firefighters are among Kafka's regular clients.
Kafka says there are some poor imitations on the market, but he takes it in stride and focuses on making his product the best it can be.
"People say those things don't work . . . until they get one of ours," he said. "We love and feed off the calls and e-mails we get every day."
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