O'Neill Wetsuits


Industry-leading wetsuit company founded by Jack O'Neill, based in Santa Cruz, California. O'Neill opened the Surf Shop in Santa Cruz in 1959, seven years after he began making wetsuit vests at his original San Francisco-based shop. Boards made up the majority of the business at first, but O'Neill was already shifting attention to the development and marketing of his wetsuits; by the late '50s he was visiting boat trade shows, at which he would launch his three young neoprene rubber-clad children into a tank of ice water to demonstrate the wetsuit's effectiveness.

A breakthrough came in the early '60s, when O'Neill introduced wetsuits featuring a thin layer of elastic nylon jersey laminated to the neoprene, facing the user's skin, making the suit more durable and easier to wear; many '50s-era surfers had rejected the front-zip long sleeve "rubber jacket" (the most common type of surfing wetsuit) as being nearly impossible to put on and take off.

Other surf-directed wetsuit companies were up and running in the '60s (most notably Dive N' Surf in southwest Los Angeles County), but O'Neill was established as the industry leader by decade's end. The company continued to innovate, producing the first single-piece fullsuit in 1970. It also lead the field in marketing, with the industry's best slogan, "It's Always Summer on the Inside"; a talented roster of team riders (Shaun Tomson, Dane Kealoha, Martin Potter, Brad Gerlach, Shane Beschen, Rochelle Ballard, Jordy Smith, and John John Florence); and dependably eye-catching ad campaigns, including a sexy but tasteful 1970 print ad featuring a bare-breasted female surfer putting on a short john wetsuit.

The O'Neill Coldwater Classic, held at Steamer Lane, Santa Cruz' front-and-center break, was a world tour pro event for three years, starting in 1987, and again in 2012. Coldwater winners included Tom Curren, Martin Potter, Frieda Zamba, and Taj Burrow.

O'Neill Incorporated celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2002, the first major surf-related business to reach the half-century mark. The business by then had 28 foreign distributorships. Surfing wetsuits remained the company's lifeblood, but O'Neill had long since branched into diving, sailing, skiing, snowboarding, wakeboarding, and waterskiing, as well as sportswear of every description. Custom-made O'Neill wetsuits were used by a group of surfers who traveled to the Antarctic in early 2000, where they rode waves in sub-30-degree water near ice floes.

In 2012, the site of the original Santa Cruz O'Neill shop, at the foot of Cowells Beach, was designated a California Point of Historical Interest.