The Truth About Sunglasses


Fashion is not my usual writing beat, but I found this short piece in the Wall Street Journal fascinating. If you wear sunglasses a lot—and in Hawaii, you oughta, a lifetime of year-round sun exposure can lead to cataracts or worse—you might dig the piece, too.

Among the revelations: “Most sunglasses are made by the same company.” That would be Italian eyewear manufacturer, Luxottica. The Italians even own Ray-Ban, the iconic, formerly American, manufacturer of the coolest pair of sunglasses ever.

The Wayfarer.

That’s my pair, sitting on my desk today. Got them back in high school; probably in 1984, when the 1952-designed Wayfarers were becoming the definitive retro sunglasses of the decade, sung about by Don Henley, sported by Sonny Crockett.

OK, I confess. My mom probably bought them for me, because they were a staggering $35 back then, from the optical shop at the Barber’s Point Exchange.  That Navy exchange is long gone, ever since most of the base closed down, and Europeans now make the Wayfarer, but I’m happy to still own this pair 26 years later; dings, scratches and all. I’ve seen more than half my life through them.

I’m not usually a stickler about “Made in America” except in cases like this, where the product in question is singularly, historically American. I mean, rock n’ roll and hip-hop can go global, and they’re American inventions, too, but the cultures that adopt them make their own unique version, which then adds back to the coolness of the original. John Woo made his name in Hong Kong directing his version of American gangster films. Terrific! He made them his own and advanced the art form.

Ray-Ban was essentially the eyewear division of Bausch & Lomb, an American lens company dating back to 1853. Part of the quality of the U.S.-made Wayfarer were its green-tinted, heavy glass G-15 B&L lenses. How cool has Bausch & Lomb been? Besides inventing the aviator sunglasses in the 1920s, it also made the lenses for periscopes and gun sights for the U.S. Navy in World War II (see: the 5-inch deck gun of the USS Bowfin, for example), and the lenses through which the first satellite photos of the moon were taken, among many other things. Bausch & Lomb sold off Ray-Ban to the Italians in 1999 for more than $1 billion.

Luxottica’s Wayfarers seem different. I own a couple shiny, new modern pairs of them and they’re exactly the same as my old ones in nearly every detail. Yet, they’re not. They’re replicas, even if the weight, the look, the green tint of the (not B&L!) lenses all appear identical. So what is authenticity? A physical quality? Provenance? Or a piece of information, something you know or don’t know about an object that makes you feel it is somehow realer than its imitation?

Oh, one last thing, and one last ’80s reference. ZZ Top once advised us all to buy ourselves some “cheap sunglasses.” Good advice? The Wall Street Journal says you’re probably fine going that route, too.