Go behind the scenes at Vuarnet, the maker of the classic shades beloved by both skiers and icons like Miles Davis and Mick Jagger.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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