When many industries globalized in the 1980s, the American makers of eyeglasses got pummeled from two directions: The Italians were better at fashion, and the Chinese could copy just about any design and produce it cheaper than anybody.
Hallowed names like Bausch & Lomb, American Optical and ArtCraft all hit the skids in the years that followed.
Today the surviving makers of eyewear in the U.S. can be counted on one hand. But the biggest of all, State Optical Co., is just five years old and based in Vernon Hills, Ill., where a partnership of four headed by CEO Scott Shapiro is churning out high-quality acetate frames in a 20,000-square-foot plant where 65 people are employed.
Riverwoods, Ill., resident Shapiro, 39, learned the business as an importer of frames from both Asia and Italy under the Europa name, which he continues to operate with partner Jerry Wolowicz.
"I got the idea to go beyond importing and start a collection of made-in-the-U.S. frames," Shapiro says. "However, I found there was [almost] no manufacturing infrastructure left in America."
Then he met Marc Franchi and Jason Stanley, who had a small boutique frame-making business in suburban San Francisco. Together they found a veteran designer, Blake Kuwahara, based in California, and then traveled to Italy and Germany to find machinery. Franchi and Stanley relocated to the Chicago area, where Shapiro was living and working. They hired a dozen workers, and everybody learned the craft, which can take 50 steps by hand to produce a single frame, on the job.
"We had big crates of machinery coming from overseas, and there were no instructions in English on how to use any of it, because it had been years since anybody speaking English had bought this kind of equipment," Shapiro says. "Marc went out and interviewed people in the industry to find out what we had to do. We advertised for workers with the slogan that we were bringing an industry back to America."