By Glen Martin | May 11, 2021
San Clemente, California
Back in the late 1960s, Jesse Taylor "Jay" Riffe was a machine tool salesman in Southern California with a young family and a tight domestic budget. He was also an avid and highly skilled spear fisherman whose passion kept his family well fed through the tough times.
But Riffe wasn't happy with the spearguns of his day. They were mostly fabricated from metal and were thus noisy, scaring the fish. They were also inaccurate. So he started building his own guns in his garage in Dana Point, a small beachside community in Orange County. His bespoke spearguns incorporated wood and were elegantly designed; they were also silent, extremely powerful and accurate. Local "spearos" noticed and clamored for guns of their own.
Soon Riffe had a busy side gig making spearguns for his friends, and then for friends of friends. The demand grew relentlessly, and he began manufacturing the guns full-time in 1979. The financial pressures on his family eased -- though fish was still the entrée of choice at the dinner table.
Riffe was his own best ambassador for his namesake company, traveling internationally to promote his sport and demonstrate his products -- and ultimately establishing himself as one of the top marine hunters on the planet. He held three world spearfishing records in the 1970s: a 286-pound yellowfin tuna, a 62-pound wahoo and a 44-pound dorado. Riffe passed away in 2020, but his reputation and the company he founded endure.
Today, RIFFE International Spearguns is the foremost manufacturer of quality spearguns and marine hunting accessories in the world. Indeed, RIFFE guns -- still largely based on the prototypes that Jay Riffe developed -- are the gold standard device for taking everything from relatively small inshore fish to pelagic giants such as tuna.
"My father was a constant innovator," says Jill Riffe Salerno, Jay Riffe's daughter and the company CEO, "and we're carrying on that tradition. We sponsor a spearfishing team that functions as our global ambassadors. We give them gear and tell them to use it and abuse it, then get back to us with advice on how to improve it. So we're maintaining that ethos of innovation and the highest possible quality that was the founding principle of the company."
Further, RIFFE doesn't outsource. The company makes all the components it uses in its guns -- from float lines to spear tips -- in its San Clemente complex. "We have 12,000 square feet of factory space with routers, lathes, mills -- everything we need to make whatever we need," says Jill. "That ensures our standards are sustained through all our products."
Jill and her sister Julie -- an expert marine hunter in her own right, and a member of the company's spearfishing team -- assiduously uphold another tradition their father established: environmental responsibility.
"He was a very early champion of fisheries conservation," Jill says. "He always emphasized 'fish for the future' -- taking only a few fish so there'd always be fish for our children and their children. I come from a marketing background, and I recognized the power of his words, and we continue to use them today. We promote selective hunting, and freediving over the use of tanks."
So what's next? In general terms, the company will stick to the knitting: manufacturing the silent, accurate spearguns that made RIFFE's reputation. Of course, innovation and conservation remain at the point of the spear, so to speak.
"We're very excited about a new bluewater gun we're introducing," says Jill. "It's a really powerful speargun designed for big, pelagic fish. It's accurate to 30 feet, and it has a breakaway system with the spear attached to the float, greatly minimizing the possibility of losing the fish. Again, that's in keeping with my father's concern for conserving the resource -- selective hunting, making every shot count, and utilizing every fish taken."
Challenges: "When the pandemic hit, the supply lines for essential materials tightened in some areas," says Jill. "It was touch and go a few times, so now purchasing is a priority. We're planning farther ahead to ensure we'll always have what we'll need."
Opportunities: "We really want to grow our global distribution, and we're in a good position to do that," says Jill. "We have a new generation of divers coming up, and we're making good progress in educating them -- not just about our products, but about sustainable hunting and safety. New divers have to understand that this is a thrilling sport, but it can also be a dangerous one."
Needs: "We're always looking for new people, but finding them isn't always easy," says Jill. "We have to train virtually everyone we hire, and we need people who are motivated and committed to producing quality products."
CompanyWeek is partnering with CMTA, California's manufacturing trade association, and CMTC, the state's NIST-sponsored Manufacturing Extension Partner, in a year-long focus on innovation in California manufacturing. Contact us to have your company profiled as we spotlight the state's innovative sector.