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Two centuries of French glasses, from functional to high fashion

Today up to 12 million pairs are made in the Jura and sold worldwide. We visit the birthplace of fashionable frames and find it has a bright future

(Clockwise from left) Audrey Hepburn wears Pierre Marly sunglasses in Charade (1963); 200 year old Maison Bourgeat workshop; Musée de la lunette Pic: Alamy / Maison Bourgeat / Musée de la lunette

A small town in eastern France has been the ‘capital of French spectacles’ for more than a century. 

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

Jura known for metal work since 16th century

It all began in 1796 when Morez blacksmith Pierre Hyacinthe Caseaux, who specialised in pin nails, was looking to diversify, and created a pair of wire bésicles (spectacles). 

A few years later, he hired a small team and started producing more than 3,500 lunettes annually, selling them in France and Switzerland.

It was a new awakening for the Jura area, which had been renowned for its metalwork since the 16th century.

Very light frames, nicknamed lunettes fils (wire glasses) or lunettes cheveux (hair glasses), became a speciality, as well as pince-nez, the glasses favoured by US president Theodore Roosevelt. 

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

Training spectacle makers

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.

Manufacturing of glasses became so crucial to the area that specific training has been available since 1854. 

Originally focused on making watches, the Ecole Pratique d’industrie de Morez, which developed into the Lycée Victor Bérard, still offers an education in optical and micro-mechanical tradition.

Large exporter of frames

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

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

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

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

Museum tells story of Morez

The Musée de la lunette in Morez, opened in 2003, celebrates the town’s historic industry.

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

“One part is about the industrial history of Morez, because it was the centre of the production of glasses 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 is also an eclectic range of exhibitions, including a donation from ophthalmic optics expert Jean-Pierre Bonnac, a collection of 85 paintings donated by François-Honoré Jourdain, and historic machines and equipment.

There is also another must-see.

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

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

Pierre Marly changed glasses forever

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

After a career in the military, Pierre worked as an optician. He was passionate about the profession and became technical director at Lissac, Paris’s first major optician shop. 

“In 1948, he got his diplome d’opticien and had only one idea in mind,” says his son – “to transform glasses from functional visual aids into fashion accessories”.

Pierre became a stylist to the stars, 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 le couturier des lunettes, or l’opticien qui habille les yeux du Tout-Paris,” says his son.

French quality is best

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

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

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

“As far as eyewear is concerned, historically in France, glasses are made in the Jura region.

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

Eyewear businesses based elsewhere in France, such as Lafont or Nathalie Blanc, also trust manufacturers in the Jura region for their savoir-faire and good reputation. 

Rescue bid for historic maker

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

It 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, as were most of the former workshops in the Jura. I did not hesitate for a second and launched myself into the adventure.”

Since then, the going has not always been smooth.

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

“I was afraid that the adventure would end. I then brought in three private partners who realised how lucky we were to have a 200-year-old treasure like this to develop and internationalise,” he says.

As far as possible, Mr Bessis is staying true to the business’s roots.

“All our frames are made in our Jura workshops – the Haute Lunetterie, our Muse range (affordable made-to-measure), and our limited series.”

The firm also works exclusively with Hoya, the world’s second-largest glass manufacturer, which makes its lenses in France.

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

Historic workshop restored

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

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

“Morez is the cradle of eyewear worldwide.

“Maison Bourgeat is one of the most historic and one of the last two bicentenary-old businesses here. It has never relocated 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 that are otherwise going to be lost.”

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