Last winter, high up in the Jura mountains, we scored one of the most successful digs of deadstock vintage frames in Bidules history. It didn’t just happen from one day to the next, it took our team a lot of research, fact-checking, and negotiation to come away with hundreds of high quality acetate frames from the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. Along the way, we learned a ton about the history of eyewear and we feel like we need to document it somewhere – for ourselves and for our community. Read on for some new knowledge about frames, or just for a story about a really nice day :))
IT TAKES A VILLAGE!
If you’ve been in the shop recently or checked us out on Instagram, chances are very high that you’ve come across the word SOLO many times. But what does it actually mean and where did it come from?
We didn’t know for sure then, but now we’re sure: SOLO stands for Société Oyonnaxienne de Lunetterie et d’Optique. We could guess because we often come across acronyms like MMLO, FOCA, etc. One thing is certain – Oyonnax, France is a small village renowned for its expertise in plastic design, more specifically manufacturing acetate eyewear.
As with most good things in life, it all started in the Middle Ages with a bunch of people in the countryside looking for better ways to smoke weed. Nah but seriously, French farmers pushed higher and higher up into the mountains in search of a special high altitude wood native to the Jura region in order to carve smoking pipes, because this certain species of wood, the wild buxus (latin. buxus sempervirens), was resistant to burning.
Fast forward a few hundred years, these mountain families became highly skilled in carving and whittling. Back in the day, horn and tortoiseshell were often harvested to carve small handy items. And so, the oyonnaxiens became highly skilled and known for their horn accessories as well. Eventually, plastic and acetate were discovered as cheap, moldable materials with similar properties to horn, and thus they became highly skilled plasticians. For small collections and quantities, this type of hand-based work is great, it gives you a lot of agility and flexibility, you don’t need big machines nor R&D, you “simply” hand-carve. That’s why the US would start out by importing from France – the quality was exceptional. Later on, when quantities/model needed to be larger… these families would start to struggle.
The year is 1925, and the oyonnaxien factories are busy making plastic combs and hair pieces for the growing fashionable middle class of Europe. As women’s hairstyles changed and hair pieces fell out of fashion, they searched for other products to develop. By 1930, these factories would pivot (fast) to designing and manufacturing high quality eyewear for the next 50 years. Postwar boom = more babies = more people needing glasses! More importantly, the average education and income level of people rose, and many advanced economies started to see a growing service sector economy, where reading and writing are more important as productivity factors. Long story short: more glasses usually signals longer lives and higher education levels, which is great.
GOING SOLO: A STORY OF COLLABORATION
When we finally got our hands on the boxes of frames in Oyonnax, we immediately noticed the SOLO etched on every box. Back in the store, we researched to uncover the full story behind this name and the historical context around one of the BIG questions that we get all the time, which keeps the lights on at Bidules. That question is: Why, oh why are glasses produced before the mid-80s so much better than they are today? TLDR: globalization ruined the party.
It turns out that SOLO signifies the official end of the postwar boom. Simultaneously, the growing forces of globalization were impacting every industry. Whereas France had been the go-to name in eyewear (‘Made in France’ was very trendy in the US from the 1920s and until the 60s), now huge US competitors like Bausch & Lomb and American Optical were able to meet the market demand much more efficiently. SOLO came about because these family manufacturers had to join together to confront globalization and social-dumping. The ‘new’ ‘liberal’ market made it more difficult for French companies to succeed, even on their home turf. Large international companies also began to offshore production to the manufacturing juggernauts of east Asia, undercutting prices and pushing French eyewear brands off the market. In 1968 Max Pittion, Renor, Bouvier-Jacquiot, Lévrier, Marc Gaillard, Ets. Grosfilley and Maurice Grasset founded their cooperative: SOLO.
CHANCE ENCOUNTERS a.k.a. DIGGING IN KETOSIS
The SOLO stock has been a very important part of Bidules history, and the serendipitous journey of how we came across it is also worth telling. Nico was on a digging trip and taking a stroll along the river near the ruins of the Jacquenod factory (1866–1990) in Oyonnax. He had already found some great pieces that day, which were carefully wrapped and waiting in the back of his car to be transported back to Brussels.
He always makes a point to chat people up in these small villages with a history in eyewear. You never know where a chance encounter might lead! Plus, as part of a keto diet try-out, he was in fasting mode and hadn’t eaten in 20 hours – hence some funny hormone levels were at work in his brain (read: he was high). During this goofy chat, he discovered that this gentleman was a mechanic for many of the eyewear factories years ago, and gave Nico a contact who might be interesting to connect with. It turns out that this connection had just emptied out a building full of frames from Ets. Grosfilley and SOLO from 1950–1980. Many of these frames were children’s sizes and not suitable for Bidules, but hundreds of them were highly interesting pieces which have been stocking our shelves for the last few months – many will be featured in the Bidules Staff Picks 2022. Below you will find some of our favorites.
It’s safe to say that if that man hadn’t been walking his dog at that moment, and Nico hadn’t been high on ketones, Bidules would never be RIDING SOLO.