State Optical Co.

“Made in the U.S.A.” is a coveted label that seems to be craved by consumers across various product categories and retail segments. The epithet also seems to create an air of mystery around industries dependent on foreign manufacturing.

At State Optical Co., the American eyewear company staked claims on the moniker as the first to fully manufacture luxury acetate eyewear in the U.S.

State Optical employs 50 craftsmen in its Chicago-based manufacturing facility, which houses more than 60 pieces of equipment. When State Optical sought to become the first “Made in America” luxury eyewear brand, they were told by a slew of overseas manufacturers that it simply couldn’t be done. The company’s co-founder and chief executive officer, Scott Shapiro, told WWD, “To make a pair of acetate eyeglasses is actually a really complex process. The average consumer might not realize that.” He added, “To think that there’s some machine in China that spits these things out 100 at a time is a misnomer. It’s definitely not true.”

The global eyewear market is projected to reach $165 billion by 2022, according to a report by Global Market Insights. Ninety-five percent of all eyewear is manufactured overseas, with 90 percent hailing from China, said a separate report by the Alliance for American Manufacturing.

In the 1700s, eyeglass frames were made by hand and of horn or wire. By the late 1800s, larger-scale manufacturing was available and by the early Forties, plastics were used. Cellulose acetate was made in 1904 in Basel, Switzerland, and later used in textiles and fibers — and eventually became the choice material for eyewear.

Shapiro’s family owns and operates Europa Eyewear, an optical company that had been importing eyewear for 35 years when he decided to create a U.S. based eyewear brand. Shapiro and Jerry Wolowicz, an eyewear executive, traveled overseas to share his idea with top manufacturers, many of whom were business contacts he and his family had known for decades. “[I told them that] we’ll put up all the capital and build a manufacturing facility, but we need somebody with the expertise to come to the U.S. and help us train our workforce, because it’s a lost craft in the States,” Shapiro explained. Theoretically, the idea impressed industry professionals, but still, no one would partner with them.

After years of searching in vain for a team to help build the infrastructure of the U.S. eyewear brand, Shapiro eventually partnered with entrepreneur Marc Franchi and his cousin Jason Stanley, who together were running a small eyewear company. Franchi, an entrepreneur who bought and sold small companies for about 10 years prior to working for State Optical, had built an eyewear manufacturing facility for his brand in Ventura, Calif., but to produce at State Optical’s scale, the firm purchased more than 40 pieces of new equipment and relocated to Chicago.

Franchi told WWD, “None of the raw materials are available here, none of the equipment is available here, it all has to be imported. There’s no skilled labor force, people have tried and failed in the past and [said that] it can’t be done.” Securing overseas equipment was almost impossible, as everything State Optical purchased had to be rewired to operate on a U.S. power grid. Machine instructions were not written in English, and there was no point of contact abroad for English speakers. “When something fails or breaks, there’s nobody to call. There’s no Maytag man, it’s just us,” said Franchi.

State Optical’s factory in Chicago. 

For State Optical, eyewear manufacturing is 50 percent skill and 50 percent technology. The firm said their factory is representative of the most technologically advanced eyewear factory in North America, mirroring facilities they’ve visited in Europe and Japan. “In our factory, we say it takes about 75 steps to make one pair of frames, and over 50 percent of that has to be done by hand,” Shapiro said. “Eyewear isn’t made in the U.S. because of all the handwork, and anytime you have handwork that can’t be automated, that has to be done overseas because handwork is much less expensive in China and India. We also don’t have a trained workforce to do it. “It’s not just button-pushing. You actually have to have that craft,” he explained.

Eyewear is made of acetate, a raw material that must be imported, as well as the hinges, which are manufactured and imported by OBE, a German optical supply company. To master color variation, State Optical craftsmen shave down and carve the acetate, which is 6 mm. in thickness. A proprietary three-barrel triangle-shaped hinge is secured into place with a patented nylon sleeved screw. All hand polishing, beveling and skyving comprise roughly 50 percent of the overall process and takes more than three days to complete. State Optical’s factory includes two Monofast CNC machines, which automate production processes. The factory employs more than 45 people who each had to pass a “working interview” on the factory floor (40 percent of applicants do not move past this stage).

Franchi and Stanley formulated a proprietary “mix of tumbling elements and materials” that allow the frames to embody luster and depth of color. A pyramid of 21 drilled holes is seen on the temple tip of every piece of State Optical eyewear, reflective of their Chicago, origins, the 21st state in the nation, and each frame is named after various locations and landmarks located throughout Chicago. Frames are designed by Blake Kuwahara, a licensed optometrist and renowned American designer in the eyewear space.

Origin is often associated with status in eyewear, and the industry requires that country of origin is printed on the temple of each finished product. “If we can prove that we can make frames as well as any other country in the world and that Americans are willing to buy their luxury products that are made in the United States, then I think other companies are also going to try and manufacture their frames in the U.S. So I don’t think we’ll be the only ones for very long, and we don’t want to be,” Shapiro said.

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