On a recent winter afternoon, Tom Nelson looks over the display of luggage at Zero Halliburton’s flagship store in Manhattan. There’s nothing flashy about the place or its cases, which rest atop spindly black-metal stands below the trained gaze of spotlights. But the one thing that truly stands out is the silvery sheen of aluminum and the earth metal that’s stamped, crimped and brushed to form these pricey cases.
“We like to lead with the fact that we have our heritage with this material,” Nelson says, running his finger along the concave edge of a carry-on case. “And so that says we know what we’re doing.”
CEOs are often guilty of more than a little bravado, but in this case Nelson’s on firm ground: His company does know what it’s doing. Of the quarter of travelers who opt for hard-sided luggage nowadays, the most status-conscious among them have made aluminum luggage de rigueur. Plenty of luggage brands now offer aluminum, but Zero Halliburton is the one that pioneered it.
In 1938, Erle Halliburton was on his way to becoming one of America’s richest men. A relentless innovator and combative businessman who wasn’t above threatening a rival with his fist, Halliburton had perfected a way to protect oil wellbores by encasing them in cement. After prospectors struck oil in Texas in 1918, Halliburton’s fortunes gushed along with the wells.
Yet despite his fortune, there was one thing the oilman’s money couldn’t buy: decent luggage.
The flimsy canvas suitcases of the era did not stand up to the brutal conditions in the oil fields of Oklahoma and Texas. So Erle Halliburton tasked his engineers to come up with something tough. The founder often traveled aboard his company’s DC-3. For inspiration, his designers looked no further than the plane’s streamlined aluminum fuselage.
Though Halliburton demanded only strength, his new cases wound up being pretty stylish, too. Soon after Halliburton began selling the valises, film stars began buying them and appearing with them both on and off camera. By the time that Halliburton corporate sold the brand to the Zero Corporation in 1952, the cases were synonymous with style and strength—though it was the latter that drew the attention of the federal government. In 1962, the Kennedy administration tapped the company (now known as Zero Halliburton) to make the fabled nuclear football (see below). Seven years later, NASA commissioned it to create a case for the moon rocks gathered during the Apollo 11 mission.
Owned by Japanese luggage company Ace since 2006, Zero Halliburton recently hired Brooklyn, N.Y.-based design firm Pensa to help relaunch its classic 1940s-era designs, but with contemporary touches. The Pursuit Aluminum line features concave edges and Y-shaped corner caps, but still exudes the kind of futuristic minimalism that first turned heads in postwar Hollywood. The goods are not cheap (a carry-on case runs $950), but unlike some other posh luggage, you won’t find branding emblazoned all over these.
“You’d be hard-pressed to find a logo,” Nelson said. “Our customer isn’t one to be in everyone’s face. They don’t need to tell everyone. If you look at the design, you’ll know.”