Meaux knows how to wait for perfection. Located 25 miles northeast of Paris, beside the languid River Marne, the city took roughly 400 years to build its cathedral. Meaux’s celebrated Brie cheese is known to get better with age. And every pair of Vuarnet sunglasses—also made in Meaux—requires 17 steps and one full week to produce.
Vuarnet isn’t interested in speeding things up. Manual lens craftsmanship is precisely what the brand is famous for. “Shaping, polishing, engraving—it’s all done by hand,” says Vuarnet CEO Lionel Giraud.
That’s rare in today’s eyewear market, which is flooded with cheap, disposable shades. Vuarnet, known originally as Pouilloux, was founded back in 1957 by a geeky lens-crafter named Roger Pouilloux, who developed the Skilynx lens: a distortion-free glass lens that gave skiers an unprecedented ability to discern variations in the snow. Seeking a celebrity endorsement, Pouilloux gave a pair of his high-definition sunglasses to French skier Jean Vuarnet, who wore them during his gold medal–winning runs at the 1960 Olympics in Squaw Valley, California. Vuarnet later agreed to lend his name—and his cachet—to Pouilloux’s French-made sunglasses, which quickly became an icon of cool.
For years, skiers favored them, as did Miles Davis (who wore Vuarnet’s Glacier glasses onstage) and Mick Jagger. The Dude—as played by Jeff Bridges in The Big Lebowski—paired his shabby bathrobes and cardigans with Vuarnet 03 Aviators. But fads fizzle, and Vuarnet didn’t evolve to keep up with the times. The brand fell from prominence in the 2000s, when it withdrew from the U.S. market and lost relevance in France, where once-cherished Vuarnet sunglasses languished in drawers. Now, classic ’80s looks are hot once again, and new leadership at Vuarnet—helmed by Giraud—is revitalizing the brand’s image and growing its sales. The company renewed U.S. distribution in 2015.
While fashions may have changed, the company’s exacting production standards never wavered. The process begins with a puck-size disk of mineral glass—made from silica—which is produced to Vuarnet’s specifications and tempered to resist cracking at the Corning factory in the village of Bagneaux-sur-Loing, a 90-minute drive from Meaux. Vuarnet is devoted to mineral glass, only and always. The company disdains plastic glass lenses: “The optical precision is so much better,” Giraud explains. “Can you imagine a high-performance camera with a plastic lens? It’s the same for eyewear. With glass, you see everything better.”
It takes a combination of machine work and hand-crafting to transform that puck into a crystal-clear lens. A machine polishes the blank from 3.2 millimeters to as little as 1.7—the thickness of a quarter—curving it to mimic the shape of the eye while maintaining a perfect symmetry between the front and back. “Even the slightest difference in curvature distorts the clarity,” says Thierry Bouché, the company’s manufacturing manager. The rest of the lens-crafting is done by hand. It requires manual dexterity to bevel the lenses’ edges and engrave them with Vuarnet’s logo—the letter V perched atop a ski—a finesse that takes time to develop.
“Our main concern today is finding workers,” says Giraud, explaining that it takes new hires two years just to develop entry-level lens-polishing skills—and even more time to master them. The best shapers have been honing their craft for 15 years or more.
The lens is tempered once more, to make it impact resistant, and then undergoes a shock test: A worker drops a metal ball onto the lens from a distance of four feet. (Only a lens free of imperfections will not shatter.) Finally, the lenses receive their iridescent rainbow of coatings and are hand fitted into frames designed in Paris and produced in factories throughout France and Italy. Like Vuarnet’s lens standards, frame styles haven’t changed much over the decades. The latest collection, Edge, presents trim, lightened-up versions of Vuarnet’s classic Glacier design, as well as aviator and other shapes. “The idea is to keep the brand’s aesthetic DNA, but rejuvenate it,” Giraud says.
Jean Vuarnet passed away in January 2017. But the company that bears his name is enjoying a surge of popularity, in part because shoppers around the world once again appreciate the brand’s vintage styling. At Vuarnet’s new Paris boutique, which opened in spring 2017 in Pouilloux’s former optics studio, the V logo T-shirts that were ubiquitous in the 1980s are flying off the shelves. Celebrities are re-embracing the sunglasses, too: Daniel Craig as 007 wore Vuarnet Glaciers in the latest James Bond film, Spectre. Says Giraud of the brand’s iconic look, “Vuarnet is sporty, but with elegance.”
Where to Buy Vuarnets in Paris
In March 2017, Vuarnet opened its first-ever storefront in the Paris space where founder Roger Pouilloux once crafted his eyewear. That onetime workshop in the 8th arrondissement is now a sleek, 1960s-themed boutique styled in Vuarnet’s signature blue, white, and red. The store is also part gallery: Displays include a collection of skier Jean Vuarnet’s own sunglasses as well as those worn by such actors as Daniel Craig (of 007 fame) and Alain Delon (who starred in the French film La Piscine). Flanking those celebrity pieces are Vuarnet’s current lines, including a series of limited-edition Glacier frames issued to celebrate the brand’s 60th birthday. 28 rue Boissy d’Anglas.