Why are France’s most famous sunglasses making a comeback? The answer is perfectly clear.
Meaux knows how to wait for perfection. Located 25 miles northeast of Paris, the city took 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 unheard-of in today’s eyewear market, which is flooded with cheap, disposable shades. Vuarnet was founded 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 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 the sunglasses, which quickly became an icon of cool.
For years, skiers favored them, as did such celebrities as 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 with Vuarnet 03 aviators. But fads fizzle, and Vuarnet didn’t pivot to keep up with the times. The brand fell from prominence in the 2000s, when it withdrew from the U.S. market and even lost relevance in France. Now, classic ’80s looks are hot once more, and new leadership at Vuarnet—helmed by Giraud—is revitalizing the brand’s image and growing sales. The company renewed U.S. distribution in 2015.
While fashions may have changed, the company’s exacting production standards have never wavered. The process begins with a puck-size disk of mineral glass, which is produced to Vuarnet’s specifications and tempered for impact resistance at the Corning factory, a 90-minute drive from Meaux. Vuarnet is devoted to mineral glass, only and always. The company disdains plastic lenses: “The optical precision is so much better,” Giraud explains. “Can you imagine a high-performance camera with a plastic lens? With glass, you see everything better.”
To create a lens, the disk is polished from 3.2 millimeters to 1.7—the thickness of a quarter—curving it to mimic the shape of the eye (for superior peripheral clarity). “Even the slightest difference in curvature distorts the clarity,” says Thierry Bouché, the company’s manufacturing manager. Shapers then bevel the lenses’ edges and engrave them with Vuarnet’s logo—the letter V perched atop a ski—a finesse that takes time to acquire. “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 perfect them. The best shapers have been honing their craft for at least fifteen years.
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. The latest collection, Edge, presents trim, lightened-up versions of Vuarnet’s classic Glacier frames, as well as aviator and caravan shapes. “The idea is to keep the brand’s aesthetic DNA, but rejuvenate it,” says Giraud.
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 are gobbling up retro fashion. At Vuarnet’s new Paris boutique, which opened in spring 2017, 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 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 storefront in the space where Roger Pouilloux once crafted his industry-altering eyewear. The boutique is also part gallery: Dis- plays include a collection of skier Jean Vuarnet’s sunglasses as well as those worn by other high- profile celebrities. Current models include a line of limited-edition Glacier frames issued to celebrate the brand’s 60th birthday. 28 rue Boissy d’Anglas. vuarnet.com