In search of spectacles

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Above: Inspecting lenses at a Luxxotica factory.

BitDepth#1161 for September 06, 2018

Buying stuff online always brings risks. The fit of clothing or shoes, the feel of gear, that first time you touch a purchase after opening the box, with the frisson of fear that this very right thing will end up feeling terribly wrong.

Buying two very different cases, for instance, when shopping for protection for a mobile device is one affectation I’ve adopted. With rapid prototyping and fast, cheap manufacturing now the norm, most cases don’t cost a lot and invariably, one will end up being clearly better than the other.

Some things are too expensive for that kind of comparison after the fact shopping, and the buffers that most stores offer fickle customers by allowing returns on goods really don’t work at this distance, particularly after you’ve paid import fees for the items.

Along the way I’ve discovered that I need shirts and polos cut in long-tail style, shoes in an American size 13 for a guaranteed fit and other useful quirks that increase the possibility of satisfaction in goods that are all about taste and comfort.

One Rubicon remained to be crossed, however, the most personal of all purchases, a pair of eyeglasses.

The day came when standard pharmacy reading glasses just didn’t work well for me anymore.

The first step was to get my reading distance prescription (I wear trifocals) and plug that into a couple of sites to try their goods.

The resulting products were roughly twice the price of storebought versions, not too pricey for custom lenses cut specifically for my eyesight.

On the advice of a friend, I began with the websites of GlassesUSA and 39dollar Glasses for those.

Both claim to have been founded by professionals from the optician’s trade.

But here’s the thing, it really doesn’t matter.

What you really need is a good optometrist to test your eyesight and give you the precise instructions for the manufacture of lenses that correct your particular vision problems.

From there, no matter what your marketing and style imperatives, the order will go to one of the few companies in the world that actually make frames and lenses.

With its intimidating grip on the market, your order will probably end up with a company owned by EssilorLuxottica, an amagalamation of companies that would trigger governance concerns if the extent of its ownership of eyeglass manufacturing was replicated in any other trade.

Before their merger earlier this year, Essilor had almost half of the lens manufacturing business in the world while Luxottica offers a quarter of the market for frames. 

The fact that you probably don’t know anything about this is the result of a veil of professional secrecy that’s surrounded the manufacture of eyeglasses for decades.

In that time, the process of eyeglass manufacturing evolved behind curtains that would leave Oz The Great and Powerful in fits of envy. 

The conundrum of spectacles is that those who wear them fall broadly into two camps, those who wear them to see and those who wear them to be seen. 

EssilorLuxottica’s stable of brands includes the most recognisable names in the world, including Ray-Ban, Oakley and Vogue and the company licenses others, including Prada and Armani. 

Regardless of whose brand is on their temples, the cost of actually manufacturing a pair of spectacles is around TT$300. 

Producing the Lunettes Kollektion. Photo via Providence Optical.

With the significant lubrication of Internet commerce, the business was ripe for disruption. 

Unfortunately, my reading glasses prescription, while perfect for anything held at arm’s length, didn’t work for my work with computer screens, which tend to be just a bit further away.

So I measured off the eyeball to LCD distance and returned to my optician for a custom prescription for that use. Buoyed by that success, I got bolder.

This year, I decided to try replacing my trifocals. 

I scheduled an overdue eye test then tried on frames at the store, but couldn’t find anything that felt right. 

So the budget for a new pair was deployed with the online businesses that had proven capable of filling my previous prescriptions, 

This was going to be more costly, so I carefully measured off frames for fit as well as style (yes, vanity was in play here), before placing orders with both companies.

The process is a bit technical, and I’d learned quite a bit from my earlier experiences with reading glasses, so be warned, there’s a lot that a novice might get horribly wrong. 

The pair from GlassesUSA was almost twice the price of the order from 39dollar Glasses, but was subtly better, both optically and in fit.

For just a bit less than the cost of one midrange pair of frames and lenses, I bought two online, all costs calculated. 

I can wear either for long periods, but prefer finish and optical quality of the GlassesUSA product by a wide margin.

It just, well, feels better, which still counts for something.