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Two centuries of French eyewear, from functional to haute couture

A small town in eastern France has been the “capital of French entertainment” for more than a century.

Morez earned this title after decades of producing quality frames for the French eyewear industry, which supplied customers such as Audrey Hepburn, Sophia Loren, Nana Mouskouri and even politicians like Valéry Giscard d’Estaing.

Jura known for metalwork since the 16th century

It all started in 1796 when the Morez blacksmith Pierre Hyacinthe Caseaux, specializing in pin nails, sought to diversify and created a pair of iron wires spectacles (eyeglasses).

A few years later, he hired a small team and began producing over 3,500 glasses a year, selling them in France and Switzerland.

It is a new awakening for the Jura, renowned for its ironwork since the 16th century.

Very light frames, nicknamed glasses son (metal glasses) or glasses hair (hair glasses), became a specialty, as well as the pince-nez, the favorite glasses of the American president Theodore Roosevelt.

They are named after the French word clamp – literally, pinch your nose.

Eyewear training

From 1826 to 1848, production in Morez increased from 3,000 pairs of glasses to 720,000 and reached 11 million pairs at the end of the century.

Eyewear manufacturing has become so crucial to the region that specific training has been available since 1854.

Originally centered on watchmaking, the Practical School of Industry in Morez, now Lycée Victor Bérard, still offers traditional optical and micromechanical education.

Large frames exporter

Today, between 8.5 and 12 million pairs of glasses are manufactured each year in factories based in the Jura.

Les Lunetiers du Jura is a collective of 29 industrial and commercial members (977 employees), specializing in all trades related to the production of French eyewear.

The network claims that more than 2,000 new models are developed in the region every year and that it produces more than 10 million glasses a year, half of which are exported worldwide.

This makes Jura the world’s sixth largest exporter of spectacle frames.

Museum tells the story of Morez

The Morez Glasses Museum, opened in 2003, celebrates the town’s historic industry.

María de Mota, spokesperson for the museum, said: “It is the only eyewear museum in France. It is almost the only one in Europe [there is just one other, in Italy].

“One part relates to the industrial history of Morez, because it was the center of glass production in France and then in Europe during the 19th and the first part of the 20th century.

“And then we have a second part, which is really interesting: one of the best collections of glasses and optical objects.”

There’s also an eclectic range of exhibits, including a donation from ophthalmic optics expert Jean-Pierre Bonnac, a collection of 85 paintings donated by François-Honoré Jourdain, and historic machinery and equipment.

There is also another essential.

“The most popular is the Pierre Marly Collection. This is important all over the world,” says Ms. de Mota.

It includes 2,500 objects – including 300 on display – celebrating the work of a very special French optician.

Pierre Marly has changed glasses forever

“Pierre Marly was self-taught, and it was by chance that he became a famous eyewear designer,” says Gilbert Marly, his son.

After a career in the army, Pierre worked as an optician. Passionate about the profession, he became technical director of Lissac, the first large optical store in Paris.

“In 1948, he obtained his optician’s diploma and had only one thing in mind”, explains his son – “to transform glasses from functional visual aids into fashion accessories”.

Pierre became a star stylist, designing several models for his famous clientele.

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, he was responsible for some of the most striking frames to grace magazine covers and red carpets.

“In the press, Pierre Marly was known as the designer of glassesWhere the optician who dresses the eyes of all of Paris“says his son.

French quality is the best

Now in its third generation, the family business Pierre Marly offers made-to-measure glasses in acetate or, true to the brand, rarer materials such as tortoiseshell or buffalo horn.

The store has been located at 50 rue François 1er in Paris, not far from the Champs-Elysées, since 1956.

“We intend to stay here as long as possible,” says Gilbert.

“In terms of eyewear, historically in France, the glasses are made in the Jura.

“Today, faced with foreign competition (Italian, Asian, etc.), French manufacturing remains one of the best in terms of quality.

Eyewear manufacturers established elsewhere in France, such as Lafont or Nathalie Blanc, also trust the manufacturers of Jura for their know how and good reputation.

Rescue offer for the historic manufacturer

Maison Bourgeat is considered one of the oldest eyewear manufacturers in France, having manufactured nearly three million frames in Morez since 1879.

He was recently rescued by optician Harry Bessis.

“I was looking for something different,” Mr. Bessis said.

“Something that could have meaning and value. I also wanted to diversify my shops.

“I then found Maison Bourgeat, which was in receivership, like most of the old workshops in the Jura. I did not hesitate for a second and I threw myself into the adventure.

Since then, things have not always been easy.

“Covid hit us hard as we opened four stores in late 2019, early 2020.

“I was afraid that the adventure would end. I then called on three private partners who realized how lucky we were to have such a 200-year-old treasure to develop and internationalize,” he says.

As much as possible, Mr. Bessis stays true to the company’s roots.

“All our frames are made in our workshops in the Jura – Haute Lunetterie, our Muse range (inexpensive custom-made), and our limited series.

The company also works exclusively with Hoya, the second largest glassmaker in the world, which manufactures its glasses in France.

Although Japanese-owned, Hoya has a base in Emerainville, near Paris. It employs more than 150 people and manufactures nearly 2,000 glasses every day.

Restored historic workshop

Mr. Bessis has also refurbished all of the Jura workshop’s original metal fabrication machinery, hired new employees and added a full acetate production plant.

“We want as many people as possible to see these machines in operation, unique in the world,” he explains.

“Morez is the cradle of eyewear in the world.

“La Maison Bourgeat is one of the most historic and one of the last two bicentenary companies here. It has never relocated its production in its entire history.

“As far as the industrial part is concerned, we would like to open our doors to young designers or groups of opticians wishing to develop their own collections, with our know-how and using authentic machines and artisanal methods which otherwise will be lost. .”

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