Illinois start-up revives craft manufacturing

Yunnuen Garcia is scraping and sanding an acetate eyeglass frame in State Optical’s Vernon Hills-based factory.
Yunnuen Garcia is scraping and sanding an acetate eyeglass frame in State Optical’s Vernon Hills-based factory.

By Mengjie (Jessie) Jiang

Under a huge American flag, three craftsmen are scraping and sanding acetate eyeglass frames on a gritty table, one of the 75 steps to make a pair of State Optical luxury eyeframes.

The Vernon Hills, Ill., manufacturer says it’s trying to redefine “Made in America” by emphasizing quality and craftsmanship over low price.

Jill Harder, office manager of Gailmard Eye Center in Munster, Ind., which has been selling State Optical’s products since September, said the frames, although expensive, sell very well in its center, and customers are attracted by the brand story as well as the high quality.

“The way they made the temple curve around your eyes is way different from any other normal frames,” Harder said. “The temple counterbalances the weight, so the frame on your nose does not constantly fall down.”

American eyewear manufacturing gradually moved abroad because of cheaper labor cost, but Marc Franchi, president of State Optical Co., said making exquisite eyewear in the U.S. is more than putting people back to work, it’s bringing back a craft culture that America can make anything.

“They said because it’s too expensive it can’t be done,” Franchi said. “None of the materials are available here and they must be imported. Equipment has to be imported and there is no skilled labor force.”

Nevertheless, in an interview overlooking his factory floor where more than 50 craftsmen were working, Franchi explained how the firm bucked the historical realities: by devoting three to five months training the workers, as well as importing machinery not available in the U.S.

From carving to polishing, each of State Optical’s frames will go through 75 steps in 20 processes, mostly by hand, necessitating steep prices that average $350.

Franchi said the objective is to create the first high-end luxury eyeframes produced in large scale in the U.S. and so to revive the memory that handcrafted in America is high quality.

“No other fashion accessories in the world or very few are worn on the face, and your eyewear is so much a part of you, and it is part of your personality” Franchi said. “We take pride when customers choose to wear our products because it reaffirms that we are doing something good, and our designs and qualities are good.”

A sample frame made by State Optical Co. (Mengjie Jiang/MEDILL)
A sample frame made by State Optical Co. (Mengjie Jiang/MEDILL)

The brand’s logo is a pyramid of 21 dots, alluding to Illinois as the 21st state to enter the union. The first collection of frames has 18 styles, each named after a street in Chicago, and is sold in more than 500 optometrists’ offices and other outlets nationwide, including several in the Chicago area.

CEO Scott Shapiro said the company is proud to bring back jobs but emphasized that producing in America helps it make better products.

“When we can produce the products here, in the United States, we can quality-control every single piece by our own standards, so if there is a problem, we can stop production immediately,” Shapiro said.

Shapiro worked with his family eyewear brand, Europa International, which, he said, has been wholesaling eyewear to independent retailers all over the country for 40 years.

Asked by customers about products made in the U.S., Shapiro started searching for some, and then he met Franchi and his cousin Jason Stanley, who had taught themselves how to make frames and eventually built their own small shop in California. Four years ago, they launched State Optical in Vernon Hills.

Shapiro said a customized factory narrows the gap between the manufacturer and the consumers who purchase the eyewear.

“We asked our designer Blake Kuwahara to design the highest quality frames you could possibly design, and then we built our manufacturing facility to make that frame, so we had to make no compromises on the quality and craftsmanship of the frames, and that’s ultimately our best advantage,” Shapiro said.

With 50 machines, mostly imported from Italy, in the 10,000-square-meter factory, the manufacturing plant is highly technologically advanced. Acknowledging the importance of automation in reducing costs, Shapiro said that nevertheless craftsmen will never be replaced in the eyewear industry.

“One of the things in making eyewear is what really gives its, in most cases, its quality, is the finishing work, and it all has to be done by hand, so all of those hands, all the people working by hand, that’s what’s really the differentiator between a high quality product and a middle-to-low product,” Shapiro said.

Carl Ciucci, one of the company’s earliest floor operators, said he is not worried that his job might be eaten by machines.

“I think there is always gonna be someone standing behind a machine to make sure that it’s running properly,” said Ciucci, adding that he supports bringing in machinery to replace his job because “I will learn how to move forward.”

Franchi would not reveal revenue but said the company is profitable and will release 12 more frame styles in spring and fall.

“We plan to hire 15 craftsmen and produce 85,000 frames this year, a 70 percent growth from last year,” Franchi said.

Photo at top: Yunnuen Garcia is scraping and sanding an acetate eyeglass frame in State Optical’s Vernon Hills factory. (Mengjie Jiang/MEDILL)