Do you know the provenance of your glasses, what they are made of and who made them? I do.
There was a recent article in the LA Times about how we are being ripped off on eyewear, how high the markups were, how cheap it really is to make frames and lenses for eyeglasses. The founder of Lenscrafters, Dean Butler, tells of visiting factories in China:
Butler said he recently visited factories in China where many glasses for the U.S. market are manufactured. Improved technology has made prices even lower...“You can get amazingly good frames, with a Warby Parker level of quality, for $4 to $8,” Butler said. “For $15, you can get designer-quality frames, like what you’d get from Prada.” And lenses? “You can buy absolutely first-quality lenses for $1.25 apiece,” Butler said. Yet those same frames and lenses might sell in the United States for $800. Butler laughed. “I know,” he said. “It’s ridiculous. It’s a complete rip-off.”
After reading this, I contacted Odin Cappello of Look Again Eyewear in Toronto. Odin made my eyeglasses; I suppose you could call them artisanal glasses, made in a small industrial space just off Toronto's super trendy Geary Avenue, behind an artisanal gin distillery. He pretty much confirmed the article:
Yes, those articles are a good representation of the ugly truth of the industry. What they don't mention is why the cost of the frames is so low. The factories that make the frames have large scale production methods that optimize the efficiency of manufacturing. Cheap labour is what really makes the cost so low though. Some frames are made in China but actually stamped made in Italy which is even sneakier.
Odin graduated from Pratt in industrial design in 2004 and went straight to work for Marchon Eyewear, the third largest company after Safilo and Luxottica. He and his partner Kenny Nguyen opened Look Again last year and make frames pretty much by hand, with the help of modern design software and a 3-axis CNC machine.
Shortly after I lost a pair of glasses I walked by their shop and saw the sign, and loved the idea of watching the process, of supporting local young designers, and getting glasses sized precisely to my head and shaped to my crooked nose.
They start with cellulose acetate from Mazzucchelli, who started making buttons and combs in 1849 and then got into cellulose acetate (CA), which was invented way back in 1865. It is made from wood pulp and cotton, and is fossil-fuel free. According to John Bobey, writing for another manufacturer,
CA really took hold as eyewear in the late 1940’s when pretty much every pair was black, brown or gray, but boy were those pairs glossy (CA has serious hi-shine abilities). Through the decades when more colors entered the fashion mainstream, CA delivered well, allowing makers to layer, cut, form and polish it into some super desirable designs. The manufacturing process remains as labor intensive today, especially in contrast to the cheap and brittle plastic of most eyeglasses that’s injection molded.
There certainly are a lot more colours available now; this was the range that Look Again gave me a choice of.
My frames (shown here before lenses were installed) are cut out from a sheet of cellulose acetate, with a bit stuck on for the nosepiece. They are then cut out on the CNC machine and polished.
A separate machine drives the wires into the arms and then the glasses are assembled.
These were not cheap, but they weren't any more expensive than the fancy frames at the big chains either, because there was no 1000 percent markup. And instead of my money going to factories in China and giant companies paying for expensive shopping mall real estate, it's mostly going into the pockets of my neighbors and staying in my community. It is the way we should be thinking about everything.
Oh, and the fit is perfect; I barely notice that I am wearing them. Look Again frames are beginning to pop up in some trendy opticians in Toronto and Montreal, but there is something totally wonderful about going into the industrial unit and actually meeting the designer and craftsperson who are making my glasses, and in supporting a local business. We all love local artisanal food; why not artisanal eyeglasses?