Manufacture This

The blog of the Alliance for American Manufacturing

Made in the USA frames are nearly non-existent, save for a few small companies.

As young children, most Americans take their vision for granted. As we age, radical changes in our eyesight takes place. We develop near-sightedness, far-sightedness, and afflictions of the eye and retina.

As the population of Americans with vision problems continues to grow, many are in need of corrective lenses. The majority of the vision-impaired choose to make a fashion statement with the color, shape, and frames of their glasses. There are even people with perfect vision that wear glasses with clear lenses to flaunt fashionable eyeglass frames. Elton John had corrective eye surgery years ago but still sports a vast collection of clear-glass eyewear to make a fashion statement.

The majority of these eyewear frames are manufactured in China. Approximately 95 percent of eyeglass frames are made outside of America with more than 90 percent produced in China, the land of inexpensive labor.

The Luxottica Group, based in Milan, Italy, controls more than 80 percent of the world’s major eyewear brands. It is believed that eyeglasses originated in Italy because of the the abundance of Zyl, a cellulose acetate that is a vital component in producing durable plastic frames. But today, there are only a few Italian eyeglass frame makers, such as Alain Mikli, Lafont, and Silhouette, which continue to manufacture in Italy. All of the other major Italian eyeglass companies have moved the majority of their production to China.

Luxottica has acquired many famous eyewear brands, including the most popular American brands. Luxottica produces among its most well-known brands, Ray-Ban, Persol, and Oakley and makes a multitude of designer brands such as Chanel, Prada, Giorgio Armani, Gucci, Burberry, Versace, Dolce and Gabbana, Donna Karan, Stella McCartney, and Tory Burch. These expensive designer brands are, too, made in China.

Approximately 95 percent of eyeglass frames are made outside of America with more than 90 percent produced in China.

In the United States, Luxottica also owns many of our major lens makers including LensCrafters, Pearle Vision, Sears Optical, Target Optical, Sunglasses Hut, and the Eyemed vision insurance company.*

Here’s the rub, though: Many of Luxottica’s famous frames are actually manufactured in China, and then sent back to the country of record where the lenses are ground and fitted to meet prescription requirements. The glasses may be stamped Made in Italy or Made in America, but that reference is only to the optical lenses being filled in a particular country.

In America, the search for Made in the USA frames is nearly non-existent, save for a few small companies that are either newer startups or those who have been able to weather the onslaught of cheap Chinese frames.

One such company is Shuron LTD based in Greenville, South Carolina. Shuron began manufacturing lenses and frames in 1865 in Geneva, New York. It has survived through three centuries and has created quite a history for itself; it was the primary source of optical products and machinery for independent and wholesale laboratories in the 1920s, as well as having served the U.S. Army troops in WWII by providing mobile optical units.

Shuron eventually moved to Rochester, New York where it competed with nearby Bausch and Lomb. After many changes and challenges over the decades, Shuron LTD was purchased in 1986 from Textron Corp. by Charles Whitehill, a Pittsburgh-area native who witnessed the closing of many of the mighty steel mill companies after World War II. He had been working at Shuron since 1975.

“Go back to the late 70s or early 80s,’’ said the 79-year-old Whitehill. “Up until that point, the system of distribution in this country was sort of like a pyramid. At the top you had a few manufacturers, then they draw a line where they distributed their product. I’m talking frames now – lenses, but also frames, primarily. They distributed those to what they call the wholesale laboratories. Shuron would go out the laboratories and approach the bulk of the salesmen who would be the dispensers to the local opticians. There was a lot of risk there for the manufacturer.

“Way back when, there was American Optical, and Bausch and Lomb, and that was about it. They controlled the entire optical industry in America. Each of them had 100 laboratories. They made the lenses and the frames. They had a monopoly.”

But in 1865, Shuron was born.

“Well here came Shuron,” said Whitehill. “Shuron became the independent labs savior. Shuron was making optical lenses and frames and supplied those independent labs with product and also financed their equipment for grinding the lenses. So for years after that, Shuron had a tremendous loyalty from the independent labs.”

Here’s the rub, though: Many of Luxottica’s famous frames are actually manufactured in China, and then sent back to the country of record where the lenses are ground and fitted to meet prescription requirements. The glasses may be stamped Made in Italy or Made in America, but that reference is only to the optical lenses being filled in a particular country.

But today, Essilor, a foreign entity, has been buying up all those labs. It isn’t hard to find a large independent lab that isn’t owned by Hoyer or Essilor. Hoyer, originally a Japanese optical company, manufactures its products throughout Southeast Asia. Essilor, originally a French manufacturer, enjoys a partnership with eyeglass giant Luxottica and a growing majority of its eyewear is produced in China.

Shuron, LTD is the only major manufacturer of American eyewear frames still thriving. The majority of its products are produced in Miami and Sunrise, Florida, then distributed through its South Carolina headquarters.

It is estimated by the Statistic Brain Research Institute that 64 percent of Americans wear glasses and that 75 percent of U.S. residents wear some form of corrective lenses. This is truly a big, billions of dollars business.

But rather than trying to keep up with the newer trends, Shuron is a throwback, considered Retro-style in many circles. At any one time there are 15 television shows and movies where the main character is sporting a pair of Shuron eyeglasses.

”Oh sure, they are Retro,” said Whitehill. “The Ronsir frame was designed by a VP at Shuron back in 1950. That’s the three-piece frame that was worn by hundreds of guys. (Legendary Green Bay Packers coach) Vince Lombardi wore it. He was noted for wearing it. That three-piece combination with the plastic and metal front, we still sell the heck out of that. It’s unbelievable how popular that frame is.”

But the detail and expertise of fitting a perfect pair of eyeglass frames escapes Whitehill.

“Basically, the industry has become a lack of professionalism,” said Whitehill. “I see some of these things people wear – (NBC news anchor) Lester Holt. I watch that poor guy on television and he’s got a frame that the temple is so short that the end of it that should be going around the ear sticks up over the top of his ear. Rudy Giuliani is the same way. I’ve been thinking about sending these guys something that would fit them. But I don’t want to insult them.

“We try to make it easy for our customers. Unfortunately, the optical consumer does not have the knowledge or expertise he might have if he were buying a car or buying a television or buying a washer and dryer. Everybody knows a little something about this. But when it comes to optics, the sellers are just mean. What’s 350 minus two and a quarter? What’s a cylinder? What’s a sphere?

“There are several retail stores that still carry our brand, but most of our business is done online,” Whitehill went on. “What we will do is send you five frames after consulting with (customers) on what they are looking for. They give us a deposit for one frame. Now they can select the frame they want and keep it and take it to their local laboratory and have the prescription done or they can return them and we’ll take a new one off the shelf and immediately give it to our lab. We’ll tell you what the price is and we can probably beat any price you can get from any other lab. Generally, in about three days you will have them back and you send every sample back to us.

“People are honest and satisfied so there is very little loss in sending out samples of five frames. They love our product.”

Shuron is now a family business, with Charles Whitehill serving as CEO and his son Chuck holding the title of president. The company is so successful, it turns away multiple offers to manufacture eyeglass frames from other small companies that want that Made in America label.

“We have a situation sometimes where too many people are after us,” said the elder Whitehill. “We have a lot of people that have a dream of making a sunglasses line the United States. I mean, I probably get five or six calls a week from people wanting us to manufacture frames for them. They want Made in USA, they want our frame. I’ve got a folder of them. Right now there must be 30 letters in there. We could expand if we wanted to, but it would require another facility here.

“Why would we not be made in the USA? Our quality is tops. A lot of people don’t care but more and more are starting to care and pay attention.”

There are several other Made in America companies that specialize in sunglasses frames.

Randolph Sunglasses

Randolph Engineering started manufacturing Mil-Spec aviator sunglasses for the United States Air Force in the late 1970s. By the late 1980s, Randolph had expanded into the commercial sunglasses market after civilians learned about the quality of its sunglasses and prescription frames through military channels. The frames are now manufactured in Randolph, Massachusetts.

Liquid Eyewear was founded in 2002 and started out making sunglasses for celebrities like Sammy Hagar, Alice Cooper, Shaq, Daughtry, and Big and Rich. Today, many of Liquid Eyewear sunglasses can be found worn by our military troops in Iraq. Liquide Eyewear frames are manufactured in Yuma, Arizona. 

And there are a number of smaller, hand-made American eyewear frames being crafted in America. Kala Eyewear in Hayward, California features limited manufacturing of all hand-made eyewear frames using the same top-quality plastic chemicals imported from Italy. Kala eyewear has been in business for more than 20 years and targets a niche market of designer frames.

To contact Shuron LTD and order a pair of Made in America eyewear frames, search the website at www.shuron.com or call (800) 242-3636.


* Correction: An earlier version of this post stated that Visionworks was associated with Luxottica. However, Visionworks is not affiliated in any way with Luxottica or any of the other brands mentioned in this post. Visionworks, and Davis Vision, their sister vision insurance company, are wholly owned subsidiaries of HVHC, Inc. headquartered in San Antonio, Texas.