American Made Luxury: STATE Optical Co.

10:07 PM

One thing that hasn't been associated with eyewear for a while: "Made in America."  For decades eyewear design and manufacture has been split into 2 realms: luxury craftmanship in European markets like Italy or France, versus low cost, mass produced frames made in high production markets like China. American eyewear designers were plentiful, but actual frame production was always sent overseas.  Through the early 2000s, many American industrial cities were plummeting into economic crisis as manufacturing jobs continued to rush off shore to drive down production costs.  But there were many in the world of optical that wanted to move manufacturing back stateside. Enter the team behind  STATE Optical Co. - the first luxury eyewear brand to be designed and manufactured in the USA.


How did STATE Optical turn the tide?  In 1977 Alan and Cynthia Shapiro founded Europa, an industry leading eyewear company out of their garage.  Fast forward to 2011 when their son, Scott Shapiro began working with Europa president Jerry Wolowicz on ways to bring producation of acetate eyewear to the US.  They had the will, but they needed someone with the know how and craftmanship expertise to actually manufacture luxury eyewear - rare to find in the US since the industry had been international for so many years. They teamed up with the improbable pair of cousins Marc Franchi and Jason Staley -- men with a history of working primarily in the automotive field that had a passion for making things with their hands. When they learned so few eyeglasses were made in the US, they started learning the trade on their own.  "Of course everyone told them they were crazy, and that the idea wasn't economically feasible," says Scott Shapiro.  

Franchi and Staley learned eyewear manufacturing from the ground up, touring manufacturing facilities overseas and observing craftsmen at work.  "They literally taught themselves how to produce acetate eyewear," marvels Shapiro.  Shapiro and Wolowicz were first introduced to the cousins when they came across their original made in America eyewear, "Frieze Frames."  They were wowed by the quality of the frames, unparalleled in the small American eyewear market. The partnership was born: the cousins and now 45 additional highly skilled eyewear craftsmen now produce frames out of the state-of-the-art Chicago home of State Optical Co. 

The Process
It takes about 75 steps to manufacture one pair of acetate eyeglasses; about 50% of these have to be done by hand. Each of those steps takes place in the STATE Optical factory in Vernon Hills, Illinois. The designs are created in Northern California by head designer, Blake Kuwahara.

Blake Kuwahara is the lauded American eyewear designer behind his popular eponymous frame line and a recent capsule collection with l.a. Eyeworks to name a few
The only two elements that aren't currently produced in the States are the hinges (made by German OBE) and the raw material (made mostly by Italian Mazzuchelli). "Our big dream is that if we are able to prove there’s a market for a luxury brand of eyewear produced here in the US, and we can bring a brand new cache to the phrase, “Made in America”, then we expect that other companies will also want to produce their luxury eyeglasses here in the US. If that happens, and there are 5, 6, 10 factories producing luxury eyewear here in the US, then it will be reasonable to produce raw acetate and metal parts here as well."

"Part of our vision for building this factory was that optical professionals and eyewear lovers from around the country could come to our facility and see how frames are made. When you buy a pair of STATE frames and open the case, you’ll see the statement, “come see how your frames are made”. Our factory is open to the public. Anyone can make an appointment for a factory tour right from our website, STATEopticalco.com."
Each STATE Optical Co design features a pyramid of 21 drill dots reminiscent of the stars on the United States flag to represent Illinois, the 21st state of the union.


Breaking Out
STATE Optical Co. is very new to the market, but already having a big impact. "We soft-launched the collection at Vision Expo West in 2015 and attracted a lot of attention. That was literally the first time anyone outside our company had seen any of the frames. We showed it again at Vision Expo East and were mostly booked the entire weekend."

"We’ve tried to be very controlled about the roll-out by only placing the collection in a select number of doors. That allows us not only to make sure we can properly service all our accounts with reorders, but it allows me the opportunity to personally meet with the staffs of each office and talk to them about our backstory and some of the features that really make the frames unique."



The Reception
"The reception has been overwhelmingly positive. We knew there was a significant demand within our industry for American made eyewear, and we knew professionals would be proud to have it in their offices – people had been asking us for it for years – so we knew people would be interested. That said, I think even our most excited customers never imagined it would meet the quality standards that STATE Optical Co. has achieved.  Furthermore, most of our accounts are reporting very successful sell-through, which means consumers and patients are loving the product too."


Their most popular frames?  The Halstead (above) and the Burnham (below). All frame names take a strong Chicago influence as you can see. 



What's Next
"At VEW (Booth G22005) we plan to launch another 6 styles, which will grow the entire collection by 50%. These styles stay true to the brand and very much work within the aesthetic of the first 12 styles, but they also branch out a little and will appeal to an even wider segment of consumers." 

"Our major focus right now is just on continuing to increase the capacity of our factory, and Marc and Jason are continuing to train our craftsmen to perfect these long-lost skills. As we achieve that, we will be able to take on some of the other wild endeavors we have on our white board. As for now, we’re preparing to make 2017 a very big year for STATE Optical Co."

Check out the entire collection on their website and get sneak peaks into the manufacturing process and the detailed hand-craftmanship behind each frame on their Instagram account.  

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