The remarkable and tragic life of Jean Vuarnet
Jean Vuarnet was a French Alpine ski racer and the first man to win Olympic gold on metal skis, rather than wooden ones. He later spearheaded the development of the first car-free ski resort in France, and launched an eponymous line of sunglasses and other apparel. However, his wife and son became members of an apocalyptic cult that ended in tragedy in the mountains near Grenoble.
Born in Tunis in 1933, Jean grew up in the ski town of Morzine, in France's Haute-Savoie region, but spent much of his youth in Grenoble and Annemasse. He learned most of his ski technique during school holidays and had to supplement this by observing the top skiers at work. These observations helped him develop an aerodynamic stance and ski positioning, which would later aid him in winning gold at the 1960 Squaw Valley Olympics. The French ski team wore the Skilynx Acier glasses, invented by French opticians Roger Pouilloux and Joseph Hatchiguian and after Jean won the gold, they made an agreement to market the sunglasses using his surname as the brand name. After a slow start, the brand found fame in the 80s, with celebrities like Mick Jagger wearing them. In the James Bond film SPECTRE, Daniel Craig wears a pair of Vuarnet glacier sunglasses.
On his return from the Olympics, Jean was inundated with job offers but ultimately chose to become the head of tourism for Morzine. He married Edith Bonlieu, another Olympic Skier and had three children, Pierre, Patrick and Alain.
While working for Morzine Tourism he envisioned a car-free resort that would be dominated by skiers and free from cars. With support from the local commune and some financial contributors, the project became a reality with the launch of the ski lifts to the slopes from Morzine. The scope of the development soon meant further investment was required and a chance meeting with Robert Brémond, who provided both real estate expertise and funding to save the project. Avoriaz 1800 was born and became a unique purpose-built ski resort, designed by architects Jacques Labro, Jean-Jacques Orzoni, and Jean-Marc Roques and inspired by Le Corbusier, the resort features high-rise buildings with angular designs resembling the surrounding mountains.
With all this going on he still found time to manage the Italian ski team but Jean's busy life meant he had spent little time with his family or raising his three boys. The only time the family spent together was during extended summer vacations. Despite this, Jean continued to be successful in the 1980s, starting a book publishing company, which by the 1990s, had turned into a retail empire - Vuarnet International.
In October 1994, two journalists showed up at Jean's door with the news that his wife Edith and youngest son, Patrick, had joined an apocalyptic cult called the Order of the Solar Temple. The order was responsible for mass suicides in Switzerland and Canada, where the bodies of 53 members were found dead and partially burned. The order was founded by an osteopath, Luc Jourret, and a jeweller, Joseph Di Mambro, both of whom died in the incidents.
Jean spent the next year trying to persuade Edith and Patrick to leave the order, but tragically, during Christmas 1995, the charred remains of 14 victims, including Edith and Patrick, were found in the forests of the Vercors. A police officer, Jean-Pierre Lardanchet, and a Swiss architect, André Friedli, shot and arranged them in a star formation, before dousing the bodies with gasoline and setting them alight. They then killed themselves. Autopsies showed that most of the victims had taken sleep-inducing drugs. Despite a public outcry and civil lawsuits, Michel Tabachnik, a Swiss conductor thought to be the Order's leader at the time, was acquitted.
Jean later remarried and lived until 2017, passing away at the age of 83. Michel Tabachnik maintains his innocence and continues his work as a musical conductor today.