The long read: How one giant company will predominate the route the whole world sees

If you have been wearing glass for years, like me, it can be surprising to discover that you perceive the world thanks to a few giant companies that you have never heard of. Fretting about the fraying edge of motorway lightings at night, or words that slide on the page, and occasionally spending a fortune at the opticians is, for many of us, enough to think about. And sights are unusual things. It is hard to think of another object in national societies which is both a medical device that you don’t want and a fashion accessory which you do.

Buying them, in my experience anyway, is a fraught, somewhat exciting exert that starts in a darkened room, where you contemplate the blurred letters and the degeneration of your visual cortex, and ends in a bright, gallery-like space where you enjoy the spry feeling of acetate in your thumbs, listen to what you are told, pay more than you were expecting to, and look forward to inhabiting a new, somewhat sharper version of your existing self.

The $100 bn( PS74bn) eyewear industry is built on impressions such as this. In the trade, the choreography that takes you from the consulting room to the enticing, bare-brick display of PS200 frames is known as” romancing the product “. The number of eye exams that turn into sales is the” capture rate”, which most opticians in Britain( or optometrists, as they are known in the rest of the world) set at around 60%. During the 20 th century, the eyewear business worked hard to transform a physical deficiency into a statement issued style. In the process, optical retailers learned the strange fact that for something that costs only a few pounds to build( even top-of-the-range frames and lenses cost, blended , no more than about PS30 to produce ), we are happy, happier in fact, when paying 10 or 20 hours that sum.” The margins ,” as one veteran of the sector told me carefully,” are outrageous .” The co-founder of Specsavers, Mary Perkins, is Britain’s first self-made female billionaire.

Almost everyone wears glasses at some phase in “peoples lives”. In developed countries, the rule of thumb is that around 70% of adults require corrective lenses to watch well. In Britain, that translates to some 35 million people. But it’s hardly a topic of national dialogue. To the casual commentator, the optical market also presents a busy and confusing sight. In Britain, thousands of independent opticians rub alongside a few big retail chains such as Specsavers, Vision Express and Boots. The wall displays in even a small, local optician hold several hundred frames, metal, acetate and rimless, while posters advertise a range of lenses with sciencey-sounding properties- “freeform”, ” photo-fusion”,” reflex vision”- and names so bland they are hard to remember even when you are looking straight at them.

But what we watch masks the underlying structure of the global eyewear business. Over the last generation, merely two companies have risen above all the remainder to dominate the industry. The lenses in my glasses- and yours too, most likely- are made by Essilor, a French multinational that controls almost half of the world’s prescription lens business and has acquired more than 250 other companies in the past 20 years.

There is a good chance, meanwhile, that your frames are made by Luxottica, an Italian company with an unparalleled combination of factories, designer labels and retail outlets. Luxottica pioneered the use of luxury brands in the optical business, and one of the many powerful functions of names such as Ray-Ban( which is owned by Luxottica) or Vogue( which is owned by Luxottica) or Prada( whose glass are made by Luxottica) or Oliver Peoples( which is owned by Luxottica) or high-street outlets such as LensCrafters, the largest optical retailer in the US( which is owned by Luxottica ), or John Lewis Opticians in the UK( which is run by Luxottica ), or Sunglass Hut( which is owned by Luxottica) is to build the marketplace feel more varied than it actually is.

Between them, Essilor and Luxottica play a central, intimate role in the lives of a remarkable number of people. Around 1.4 billion of usrely on their products to drive to run, read on the beach, follow the whiteboard in biology lessons, type text messages to our grandchildren, land aircraft, watch old movies, write dissertations and glance across eateries, hoping to look slightly more intelligent and interesting than we actually are. Last year, the two companies had a combined customer base that is somewhere between Apple’s and Facebook’s, but with none of the hassle and scrutiny of being as well known.

Now they are becoming one. On 1 March, regulators in the EU and the US gave permission for the world’s largest optical companies to sort a single firm, which will be known as EssilorLuxottica. The new firm will not technically be a monopoly: Essilor currently has around 45% of the prescription lenses market, and Luxottica 25% of the frames. But in seven centuries of sights, there has never been anything like it. The new entity will be worth around $50 bn( PS37bn ), sell close to a billion pairs of lenses and frames every year, and have a workforce of more than 140,000 people. EssilorLuxottica intends to dominate what its executives call” the visual experience” for decades to come.

The creation of EssilorLuxottica is a big deal. It will have knock-on repercussions for opticians and eyewear manufacturers from Hong Kong to Peru. But it is also a response to an unprecedented moment in the story of human vision – namely, the accelerating degradation of our eyes. For several thousand years, human being have lived in more or less advanced societies, read, writing and doing business with one another, mostly without the aid of glasses. But that is coming to an end. No one is exactly sure what it is about early 21 st-century urban living- the time we spend indoors, the screens, the colour spectrum in LED lighting, or the needs of ageing populations- but the net outcome is that across the world, we are becoming a species wearing lenses. The require varies depending where you go, because different populations have differing genetic predilections to poor eyesight, but it is there, and growing, and likely greater than you think. In Nigeria, around 90 million people, or half the population, are now thought to need corrective eyewear.

There are actually two things going on. The first is a largely unreported global epidemic of myopia, or shortsightedness, which has doubled among children and young people within a single generation. For a long time, scientists believed myopia was primarily determined by our genes. But about 10 years ago, it became clear that the way infants were growing up was harming their eyesight, too. The consequence is starkest in east Asia, where myopia has always been more common, but the rate of increase has been uniform, more or less, across the world. In the 1950 s, between 10% and 20% of Chinese people were shortsighted. Now, among teenagers and young adults, the proportion is more like 90%. In Seoul, 95% of 19 -year-old men are myopic, many of them severely, and at risk of blindness later in life.

At the same time, across the developing world, a slower and more complex process is underway, as populations age and urbanise and move indoors to work. The history of eyewear am saying that people do not, as a rule, start wearing glasses because they notice everything has run a little out of focus. It is in order to take part in new different forms of entertainment and labour. The mass market in sights did not emerge when they were invented, in 13 th-century Italy, but 200 year later, alongside the printed term in Germany, because people wanted to read.

In 2018, an estimated 2.5 billion people, mostly in India, Africa and China, are thought to need spectacles, but have no means to have their eyes tested or to buy them.” The visual divide”, as NGOs call it, is one of those vast global shortcomings that abruptly makes sense when you think about it. Across the developing world, straightforward myopia and presbyopia, the medical name for longsightedness, have been linked with everything from high road deaths to low educational achievement and poor productivity in factories. Eye-health campaigners call it the largest untreated disability in the world.

It is also a staggering business opportunity. Essilor and Luxottica know this. It was Essilor that worked out and first publicised the 2.5 billion statistic, in 2012.” For 2,000 years people were living mainly outside ,” said Hubert Sagnieres, Essilor’s chairman and chief executive, when we gratified lately in Paris.” Abruptly, we live inside, and we use this .” He tapped his mobile phone on the table. The legal and technical details of the EssilorLuxottica merger will take a few years to iron out, but Sagnieres was transparent about its mission: to equip the planet with eyewear over the coming decades.” I am driving a very profitable company ,” Sagnieres told me.” You know, between 2020 and 2050, governments will not solve all the problems of the world .”

The looming power of EssilorLuxottica is the subject of morbid obsession within the eyewear world. Everyone knows the new company is poised to have a profound impact on the way that we are going to see. “Forgive me,” said one longtime entrepreneur in key sectors.” But it is nothing short of control of the industry .” One investor described the new firm as a” category murderer “. In many dialogues, people described its arrival, which would have been genuinely unthinkable a generation ago, as both extraordinary and somehow inevitable at the same period. That struck me as the kind of contradiction you come across more often in a person than in a business. And it is true of EssilorLuxottica and, to some extent, the business of vision itself, because it is- to an amazing degree- the legacy of a single man.

Leonardo Del Vecchio is the patron, legend and haunting spirit of the global eyewear business. He is its Citizen Kane and its Captain Ahab. His father died before he was born; his mother was poor; and he was raised in an orphanage in wartime Milan, where he went out to work as a metal engraver at persons under the age of 14. In 1961, Del Vecchio opened a workshop in the town of Agordo, in the Dolomite mountains. He was 25, and starting out on his own. The valley around Agordo was emptying out because of the closure of a mine, and the town was giving away land to companies that were willing to move there. Del Vecchio asked for 3,000 sq metres on the riverbank to build a factory to induce components for sights. He had a young household, and in time, he constructed a home next door to the workshop so he could step from one to the other, starting his day at 3am.

Over the next half century, Del Vecchio grew his company, which was called Luxottica, into the world’s greatest maker of glasses frames. In an industry that was traditionally fragmented and small-scale, the totality of Del Vecchio’s ambition took his competitors by surprise. He sought to control every part in the business, from the metal alloy of the hinges to the stores where eyewear is sold.” Never assume that you have arrived, or look at the world as your only point of reference ,” he liked to say. In a series of audacious takeovers, Del Vecchio acquired brands such as Ray-Ban and Oakley and Persol, and signed contracts with fashion houses such as Armani, Ralph Lauren and Chanel. He constructed factories in China, acquired vision insurance schemes in the US and retail chains on four continents.

Since 1994, Del Vecchio has been Italy’s highest individual taxpayer and the country’s second-richest man. A few years ago, people supposed his career had run its course. But in January 2017, at the age of 81, Del Vecchio announced the greatest deal of his life, in which he also secured the final missing part for his frames- the lenses- when Luxottica agreed to merge with Essilor.” He wants to do this consolidation ,” a former colleague told,” thinking he will leave behind this great company that will last for 100 years .”

When I arrived in Agordo one recent afternoon, it was thinking about starting to snow. The township rests among steep wooded mounds and the bare gray sides of mountains. The blue houses of the Luxottica factory, with Del Vecchio’s house still standing by the entrance, glowed across the river. Although the plant is now merely one of the company’s 12 frame manufacturing facilities, which stretch from Sao Paulo in Brazil to Dongguan in southern China, the founding in Agordo remains Luxottica’s organising myth. Every year, Del Vecchio hosts a Christmas dinner for the plant’s 4,500 employees( the town of Agordo has a population of 4,000 ), which is entertained by an Italian pop star of his choose.” People are screaming and screaming when he comes in ,” said Giorgio Striano, Luxottica’s chief operating officer. In Agordo, Del Vecchio is referred to as simply, “ Il Presidente “.

Leonardo Del Vecchio( right) with Giorgio Armani in Milan, 2013. Photograph: Stefania D’Alessandro/ Getty Images

For the company’s 30 th anniversary, in 1991, Del Vecchio renovated some 15 th-century stables in the middle of Agordo and opened a private glass museum. The curator, Caterina Francavilla, who is the daughter of Del Vecchio’s longtime deputy, showed me round before she closed up for the day. The first glasses were almost certainly induced in northern Italy in the past several decades of the 13 th century.( Lenses are called lenses because they looked like lentils .) But for centuries after their invention, sights and other magnifying lenses were mostly rejected by medical men, who warned of their unnaturalness and recommended potions to correct people’s eyesight instead. In The Perfect Oculist, of 1666, Robert Turner, a London doctor, recommended turtle’s blood and the pulverized head of a bat for the therapy of squints. For weak eyesight, you might try wearing cow’s eyes around your neck.

The cabinets in Del Vecchio’s museum traced the evolution from the leather frames and hinged bridges of the middle ages to the gold rims of the 19 th century. There were opera glasses designed by Napoleon for his Polish mistress, Maria Walewska; a pair of Emperor Franz Joseph’s sights; and some pink “ occhiali appartenenti a Elton John .” No one knows why it took 400 years to put the arms on glasses- which are known as temples, and were pioneered in London in the early 18 th century- so they eventually sat comfortably on people’s ears. To mark another historic milestone, one cabinet also held a copy of Luxottica’s slender debut catalogue, from 1971, when the company induced its first complete frames.

On a shelf near the door of the museum, I spotted A Man Who Sees Far, an official Luxottica biography of Del Vecchio, which was published in 1991. I expected the optical world to be genteel and polite, and was taken aback whenever dialogues turned to the personal charisma, and menace, of Del Vecchio.” He’s the godfather ,” told Dean Butler, who founded LensCrafters in 1983.( Del Vecchio bought it in 1995.)” The godfather, to me, is the guy . He runs it .” One former senior Luxottica executive told me:” Honestly, he kind of rules by dread .” Very few opticians would even mention Del Vecchio’s name- lending him a Voldemort-like aura- for anxiety of offending him, however unlikely that are likely to. One talked about” getting a horse’s head in the bed “. Another concluded our interview by saying:” You can quote me as long as it sounds like I am sucking Del Vecchio’s dick .”

I took A Man Who Sees Far back to my hotel. Even in the company’s hagiography, Del Vecchio goes across as improbably driven and unfeeling. The biographer fights to get a few words with Il Presidente as he traverses the tarmac to his private plane.( Del Vecchio rarely gives interviews; he declined to speak to me .)” There were no kisses , no snuggles ,” his eldest daughter, Marisa, recalls in the book.” Frankly, we were scared of him .”

Del Vecchio built the empire of Luxottica on two ideas. The first was to do everything itself. After the company’s initial progression from components to frames in the early 1970 s, it set out, step by step, to control the entire process of making and selling glass, from acquiring the raw materials to selling its own products “in ones own” stores. No one had done this before Del Vecchio.” There is a simplicity to him ,” one former colleague told me.” To him it is a very simple equation: I build the best stuff, why doesn’t everybody buy it ?”

For the first 25 years, Luxottica remained on the wholesale side of the industry- “behind the curtain”, as it is known- selling its glass through opticians to the public. In the 1990 s, however, Del Vecchio chose he wanted a retail network too. First, he got Luxottica listed on the New York stock exchange, an almost-unheard of move for a mid-sized Italian business.” A plenty of big experts said it was impossible ,” told Roberto Chemello, the chief executive at the time. Luxottica afterward estimated the listing to have been worth around $100 m in advertising in the US- and it laid the ground for Del Vecchio’s hostile takeover of US Shoe, a conglomerate that owned LensCrafters, the country’s largest optical chain, in 1995. On paper, the deal seemed outlandish. US Shoe was five times larger than Luxottica, and its board did not want to sell. Having its own stores would also set Luxottica in direct competition with the thousands of optometrists it had been supplying for decades.” You have to be not only courageous ,” said Chemello, of the transaction,” but a little bit crazy .” Luxottica bought US Shoe for $1.4 bn.

Once the bargain was done, Del Vecchio promptly broke up US Shoe, whose roots went back to 1879, until all that was left were the LensCrafters stores that he wanted in the first place, which he proceeded to fill with Luxottica frames.” That is precisely the formula they have utilized ever since ,” said Jeff Cole, the former chief executive of Cole National Corporation, an even larger optical retailer that sold out to Luxottica in 2004.” When they buy a company, they spend a little time figuring it out and kick out all the other suppliers .”

The formula means that when you or I walk into a LensCrafters, or a Sunglass Hut, or a David Clulow, or an Oticas Carol( which has 950 branches in Brazil) or a Xueliang Glasses in Shanghai, or a Ming Long store in Hong Kong, around 80% of the frames on display will be made by Luxottica. Having its own designers, technologists, factories, render depots and retail outlets- Luxottica currently has almost 9,000 stores and contracts with a further 100,000 opticians around the world- means it can bring products to market faster and in greater quantities than any of its competitors. It also maintains a larger proportion of its earnings as a result.

In the factory in Agordo, I insured dual-armed robots pinning together the front and temples of Ray-Ban Wayfarers, and basket after basket of metal frames being dunked in a series of chemical baths to coat and colour them. Glasses may appear to be relatively simple objects, but they involve between 180 and 230 manufacturing stages to produce. With its own designers, lasers and massive, softly humming machines, Luxottica can take a pencil sketch to global production in about three weeks.” We are in a closed loop ,” told Striano, the operations chief. Taking into account all the different colourings and face shapes( Japanese noses are not the same as Latino noses ), Luxottica has around 27,000 models in production at any one time. Its plants turned off 400,000 pairs of frames per day. I asked Striano if any other company came close.” I suppose nobody ,” he said.

Del Vecchio’s second great insight is the one that changed the nature of the optical business- and that was to combine it with the fashion industry. Although designers such as Pierre Cardin and Christian Dior had been experimenting with frames since the 1960 s, Del Vecchio find a way to take their notions, and more importantly, their labels, to a mass marketplace. In 1988, he signed a licensing enter into negotiations with Giorgio Armani, another self-made tycoon, who had started out as a window-dresser at a department store in Milan. The deal transformed the glasses game. Until then, customers in Europe and America who wanted fancy sights had to rely on staid, industry names such as Zeiss, Rodenstock or Silhouette. After the Armani deal, they could buy Prada, Gucci and Chanel, and they were willing to pay for it.” It generated something ,” as one Luxottica manager artfully told me,” to build the needs where probably they are not .”

A store selling Luxottica brands Oakley and Ray-Ban in New York. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

By the early 1990 s, Luxottica salesmen furnishing opticians in the City of London were attaining so much money that the latter are use chauffeurs to get around.( Armani himself has sat on the board of Luxottica, and owns a 5% stake in it .) In early 2018, Luxottica has around 30 brands, including some that it owns outright, such as Ray-Ban and Persol, or that it makes under licence( Michael Kors, Paul Smith, DKNY, Burberry and so on ).

People in the industry observe that taste in frames follows a approximately 30 -year cycle, from metal, to rimless, to acetate and back again, in which familiar spectacle shapes recur and then disappear. The trend right now is towards metal, and designs that last flowered in Ronald Reagan’s America. In the “Style Area” in Agordo, on the factory’s first floor, I gratified Mario Mollo, a senior product director.” You see now the 80 s is becoming very popular ,” he told.” You ensure shallow, very wide .”

Mollo was poring over a desk of large-scale drawings of a new acetate frame for Oliver Peoples, named “Leonardo”. Spectacle frames require a thousand barely noticeable design decisions, around the shape of the bridge, the thickness below the eyes, or the pantoscopic tilt( how the slant of the lens fulfils the front of your cornea ). The Leonardo had an unusual temple, in which a curving piece of wire “mustve been” sandwiched between two pieces of acetate.” Sometimes this one is not easy to find the right bending ,” told Mollo, tracing his finger along the drawing. Like every other senior Luxottica figure I met in Agordo, Mollo was Italian, male, dressed in cashmere, and wearing a pair of the company’s frames. On a workbench a few feet away, there was a pair of EUR4, 000( PS3, 500) Dolce& Gabbana sunglasses that were hand-painted in Sicily, made out of wood and looked like a carnival float.” With sunshine, you can go totally crazy ,” told Mollo. Luxottica had stimulated only 100 for the entire world. “Crazy,” told Mollo,” but sold out .”

The transformation of glasses from a medical device to a means of self-expression, like clothes or sneakers, has been a source of pleasure for millions of people. But it has furthermore obscured their original intent, and complicated efforts to distribute them as easily as, say, mosquito nets or aspirin. When I mentioned this to Mollo, he recalled a recent trip-up he had taken with Luxottica’s corporate social responsibility program, conducting eye tests and distributing glass in rural China.” They were so happy having the possibility to see. They were hugging us. It was actually not for fashion ,” he said.” Then they started, you know, looking at themselves ,”- Mollo paused for a second-” and the style moment arrived .”

The fusion of the fashion industry and the optical business is now regarded as complete. Until recently, eye-health charities and campaigners used to distribute thousands of pairs of secondhand glasses from richer countries to poorer populations that lacked them. In 2011, the World Health Organization advised them to stop- in part because people were refusing to wear outdated styles.” Being poor doesn’t mean we want to look stupid, you know ,” Prof Kovin Naidoo, who runs the Brien Holden Institute, one of the world’s resulting eye-health NGOs, told me.

My last stop in Agordo was Luxottica’s sample room, a broad, quiet, carpeted space looking out over the river. The room contains every current Luxottica design, arranged on various tables and ranked in order of marketings. The system has been in place since the plant was built in 1972, and during that time, it has been the domain of Luigi Francavilla, Luxottica’s deputy chairman, who is now in his early 80 s.” Glasses are beautiful ,” he told, pausing among the hierarchies of Ralph Lauren, Valentino and Bulgari models.” Especially the ones that sell the most .”

It was snowing outside and Francavilla was wearing a thick blue cardigan. One of the first things he did was to take my glass off my face to identify the tortoiseshell acetate, which is known as Havana. His own glass were a pair of rimless Ray-Bans with pink carbon-fibre temples. Luxottica bought Ray-Ban from Bausch& Lomb, one of the 20 th century’s great optical companies, in 1999. At the time, the label was washed up. You could buy a pair of Aviators at a petrol station for $19( PS14 ).” It was a train smash ,” a former senior Luxottica executive told me.” They were selling Wayfarers at Walmart .”

Del Vecchio paid $645 m( PS476m) for Ray-Ban. During the negotiations, he promised to protect thousands of jobs at four mills in the US and Ireland. 3 months later, he shut the plants and shifted production to China and Italy. Over the next year and a half, Luxottica withdrew Ray-Ban from 13,000 retail outlets, hiked their costs and radically improved the quality: increasing the layers of lacquer on a pair of Wayfarers from two to 31. In 2004, to the incredulity of many of his subordinates, del Vecchio decided that Ray-Ban, which had been invented for American pilots in the 1930 s, should branch out from sunglasses into optical lenses, too.” A lot of us were sceptical. Genuinely? Ray. Ban. Banning rays from the sunshine ?” the former director told.” But he was right .”

Ray-Ban is now the most valuable optical brand in the world. It produces more than$ 2bn( PS1. 5bn) in marketings for Luxottica each year, and is thought to account for as much as 40% of its gains. Francavilla joined the company in 1968. I asked him how a human with a small sights workshop in the Dolomites had come to bestride the global eyewear industry. “ L’appetito cresce con il mangiare ,” said Francavilla. The appetite grows with eating.

How did just two companies- one in frames, and one in lenses- come to predominate something as generic, as obvious, as glass? It’s almost as if the world had one producer for pens, and the other for ink. The conditions that have allowed for the rise of Essilor and Luxottica are rooted, deep down, in the way sights are sold. Until the end of the 19 th century, you could buy a inexpensive pair of glasses- for read or for distance- out of a rack in Woolworth’s, or from a jewellery shop, or a guy in the street. Eyewear was a craft of tinkerers and discoverers.” I this evening did buy me a pair of green spectacles ,” Samuel Pepys wrote in his diary on Christmas Eve 1666,” to see whether they will help my eyes or no .”( They didn’t; Pepys’ failing eyesight forced him to give up his publication three years later .)

It was the birth of the optometry profession, around 1900, that changed things. This was a new breed of sober, respectable spectacle-sellers- not unlike pharmacists- who are seeking to standardise eye testing and to restrict the sale of glass to licensed professionals. Their aim, for the most component, was to raise standards. Eyeglass pedlars in the 18 th and 19 th centuries were notorious for swindles and faulty lenses. But there was also another compelling reason to take a cheap, widely available product and set it in the hands of a few authorised dealers- and that was to make money.

The first opticians had a tough time of it. They were disdained by ophthalmologists- proper eye doctors, who had trained in hospitals and considered themselves above the tawdry trade in glass. The first optometry course in the US was taught at Columbia University’s physics department because it was not allowed inside the medical school.( A remnant of this racism still holds: within the optical industry, optometrists are always being taunted for their chippiness and self-importance.” One step above dermatology ,” a former Luxottica executive sniped to me ).

But the new professionals persevered and, in a way, the story of optometry for much of the 20 th century was of receiving new ways to protect their patch. Across Europe and in the US, optometry laws and regulations were passed to control the prescription and selling of eyewear. Many of these had a “doctorly” aspect, but they also had the effect of creating a highly opaque marketplace. For a long time, opticians fought all manner of advertising, for example, which might force-out them to spell out their costs and allow customers to store around. In some places, this reached ridiculous extremes: in Kentucky, for a time, optometrists’ signs could not be more than four inches high. Under Britain’s Opticians Act of 1958, the display of costs was banned wholly, which meant that opticians were more or less free to build them up on the spot.” The cost would come from a little black book ,” one veteran practitioner told me.” There was a lot of sharp practice around .”

Limiting the number of glass sellers dedicated the largest optical producers opportunities to try and corner the market. As early as 1923, the American government was investigating a scam to fix prices of the nation’s best-selling Kryptok bifocal lenses. After the second world war, researchers at the US Department of Justice uncovered a vast bribe strategy- thought to amount to $35 m a year, and to involve some 3,000 eye doctor- in which the American Optical Company and Bausch& Lomb effectively bribed practitioners to prescribe their lenses. In 1966, after another scandal, the two companies, which at a time fabricated around 60% of the glass sold in the US, were banned from opening new retail and wholesale outlets for 20 years.

This was when Essilor went on the scene. In 1972, Essel and Silor, two French optical companies, merged and began sell aggressively into the US market. Essilor specialised in plastic lenses, which were replacing glass, and it also had a magical product: “Varilux”, the world’s first progressive lens, invented by an Essel engineer named Bernard Maitenaz in 1959. Progressive lenses allow people who are both long- and shortsighted- typically older customers- to combine their prescriptions into a single, graduated lens. The early Varilux models were experimental and not everyone could adapt to them, but they were probably the most important point invention in eyewear since the invention of bifocals around the time of the French revolution. The company set out to make sure that Varilux and the rest of its products( Essilor’s current sales manual operates to around 400 pages) were sold in every optometrist in the world.

The Essilor department of the Vision Institute research centre at the Quinze-Vingts National Ophthalmology Hospital, Paris. Photo: BSIP/ UIG via Getty Images

Lenses are the pixie dust of the optical business. Barely anyone knows what they are made of, how the objective is constructed and, especially at the high end, exactly how they work. For the last half century, persuading opticians to prescribe Essilor, as opposed to Hoya or Zeiss, the company’s main rivals, has been painstaking, face-to-face work. One British optician, who stocks Essilor, describing him to me this way:” Is there a difference between an Audi, a BMW or a Mercedes? Probably not. But you prefer that badge to that badge, or the route they win hearts and minds .” For years, the company has brought opticians to Paris and its Essilor Academy, where they are wined and dined and taught about its latest products.” It’s not really bribes; it’s the way it works ,” one industry veteran told me.

And when all else fails, Essilor- like its rivals, and like all wholesalers- use financial incentives to keep its customers satisfied. Opticians and industry analysts that I spoke to for this article described how Essilor employs so-called ” spiff money”- offering stores large, multi-year discounts and money bonuses for selling its products- in order to squeeze out the competitor.” Essilor wants to dominate this industry worldwide ,” one retailer told me.” They are actually a well run company. They are not a ruthless company. But they get away with all this crap which in any other industry would be anti-consumer .”

The arrangement suits Essilor and its clients pretty well. The profit margins within the optical business are a closely guarded secret, but insiders explained to me that while opticians might sell frames for two, or two and a half hours, their wholesale price, it is the lenses where they induce the most money, charging markups of 700% or 800% to their clients. The largest margins of all are on complex progressive lenses and protective coatings- for scratch resistance, or to cut out blue light- features that expense Essilor a few cents to build, and which opticians sell for between PS25 and PS50 a pop. Even Luxottica executives are awed by this.” Ray-Ban did a good job of saying Ray-Ban would cost $150, PS150, EUR1 50 and the equivalent across the world. A little bit like the Big Mac, right ?” one former marketing manager told me.” But lenses? Nobody knows how much lenses expense. The customers don’t know. Nobody knows .”

Some opticians call Essilor” The Big E “. The company boasts of rendering between 300,000 and 400,000 stores around the world- three or four times as many as Luxottica.” The strategy has to be absolutely global ,” Sagnieres, the chief executive, told me.” Not just for the rich or poor .” The company has not limited itself to lenses by any means. If Luxottica has expended the last quarter of a century buying up the most conspicuous the components of the optical business( the frames, the brands and the high-street chains) then Essilor has busied itself in the invisible portions, acquiring lens producers, instrument makers, prescription laboratory( where glasses are put together) and the social sciences of sight itself.

The company holds more than 8,000 patents and funds university ophthalmology chairs around the world. In deals that rarely induce the business pages, Essilor buys up Belgian optical laboratories, Chinese resin manufacturers, Israeli tool makers and British e-commerce websites. You can find threads on optometrist message committees with headings like” Essilor Has Bought and Now Owns( Insert Company Name Here )”, which attempt to record all the independent lens makers and laboratories that used to exist. Within the industry, the Big E is generally considered less rapacious than Del Vecchio’s Luxottica; people consider it instead as a kind of unstoppable, enveloping tide.

The first rumour, imagines really, of the two companies joining forces-out began more than a decade ago. The notion has an intuitive appeal- the fulfilling click of lenses with frames- but there were considerable obstacles. The first was culture. Essilor might be huge, but it has retained the feel of a traditional, French industrial enterprise: 55% of its employees are shareholders of the company. Luxottica, on the other hand, functioned more or less like a autocracy, with none of the management structures of most multibillion-dollar companies.” The corporate governance and headquarters of Luxottica were Mr Del Vecchio’s dining-room table ,” one former administrator in the US business recollected of the early 2000 s.” We would fly to Italy, go to his home, show him our annual scheme … He was like,’ Go do that again .'”

The companies watched themselves differently too.” I guess Essilor, while not a model company by any means, has a moral intent ,” the former manager told.” With Luxottica, it’s just lip service. It is all about dominance .” The most infamous Luxottica bargains carried an edge of brutality. In 2001, the company clashed with Oakley, the world’s hottest stimulate of sunglasses at the time. Luxottica had just bought Sunglass Hut, which sold a third of the US’s sunglasses, and Del Vecchio demanded that all its suppliers drop their prices. Oakley refused. In the summer of 2001, the company’s founder Jim Jannard flew to Milan to fulfill Del Vecchio and strike a deal. Jannard had founded Oakley out of the back of his auto in 1975. According to Forbes magazine, at the end of their conversation, he said he hoped the two men would one day be friends.” We will never be friends ,” Del Vecchio reportedly replied.

A few months later, Il Presidente swung into action. In November, Sunglass Hut stopped selling Oakleys. The chain made up around a quarter of Oakley’s business and the market share cost fell by 37%. Then Luxottica began to produce Ray-Bans with bright blue and green lenses that were eerily similar to Oakley’s trademark ” Ice” and “Emerald” coloured shades.” We were doing stuff like generating fake Oakleys ,” a former Luxottica executive who was involved in the strategy told me.” There was a kind of war going on .”

After Oakley sued in 2001, Luxottica issued a statement” denying the allegations in Oakley’s complaint in all material respects” and the case was resolved out of tribunal. But Luxottica won the war, buying Jannard’s company for $2.1 bn( PS1. 5bn) in 2007.

By that time, Del Vecchio appeared ready to retire. In the summer of 2004, as he approached his 70 th birthday, Luxottica’s founder handed over day-to-day control of the company to Andrea Guerra, a young chief executive he hired from Indesit, the Italian white goods company. Under Guerra, Luxottica rationalised its manufacturing, changing more production to China. It also became more stable and predictable. The share price trebled. But according to several former executives who were close to Guerra, he was opposed to any enter into negotiations with Essilor, considering the company as a long-term rival.( Guerra declined to speak with me ).” He did not want to merge with Essilor ,” a colleague said.” He wanted to protect us in a different way .”

In 2014, however, Del Vecchio came back to work. He was 79.” We were all pretty shocked ,” a former senior Italian executive told me. But it became clear that Del Vecchio cares about what would happen to Luxottica where reference is dies.” His most precious infant is this company ,” the US manager told me. Del Vecchio has six children around four matrimonies to three women( he remarried his second spouse, Nicoletta Zampillo, in 2010) but he has always insisted they will never succeed him. According to several senior figures at Luxottica, Del Vecchio came to believe that folding Luxottica into Essilor was the best style for his work to endure, and informal talks between the two companies began.

In many routes, the final chapter of Del Vecchio’s rule at Luxottica has been chaotic and disorienting. Guerra was soon forced out. After that, Del Vecchio went through four chief executive in three years. In his early 80 s, he is no longer the force that he once was. Subordinates told him that Del Vecchio can no longer work a full week and sometimes loses his place in meetings, while demanding to sign off on decisions as small as the floor-plans of new Luxottica stores. Dozens of senior managers have left.” He truly doesn’t trust anyone ,” one told me.

But throughout his shaky return, Del Vecchio maintained his eyes on the award, meeting in secret with Sagnieres, the CEO and chairman of Essilor, until, by the summer of 2016, Sagnieres told, “it was obvious” that the deal would go ahead. When the two men announced the formation of the blended company on 16 January last year in a call to investors, Del Vecchio’s voice came on the line.” I’m very pleased to be here with you today ,” he told,” to present the achievement of a lifetime dreaming .”

Over the coming decades, EssilorLuxottica will have the power to decide how billions of people will see, and what they can expect to pay for it. Public health systems are always likely to have more urgent problems than poor eyesight: until 2008, the World Health Organization did not measure rates of myopia and presbyopia at all. The combined company is able to interpret its mission more or less however it wants. It could share new technologies, screen populations for eye both problems and flood the world with good-quality, affordable eyewear; or it could use its commercial dominance to choke furnish, jack up prices and induce billions. It could go either way.

Right now it is EssilorLuxottica’s putative rivals in developed markets, such as the US and Europe, that are most anxious about the power of the new company. In January, Doug Perkins, the other co-founder of Specsavers, warned that EssilorLuxottica was ” hurling millions of pounds” at new technologies, such as automated optometry kiosks and online retailing, that threatens the future of Britain’s high-street opticians wholly.” That is 100% certain to happen ,” said Perkins.

The bigger scene takes a moment to discern. Late last year, I visited Britain’s most important optical collect, which is kept in the cellar of the College of Optometrists, a townhouse around the corner from Charing Cross Station. For the last 19 years, Neil Handley, the college’s historian, has been cataloguing 27,000 items donated by opticians and eyewear producers, detecting the story of the industry as he goes along.” It’s under the radar ,” he told.” It’s not something that is talked about .” When I asked Handley about the creation of EssilorLuxottica, he pointed to an old display of British sight components, made by a firm called Hadley in Surrey in the 1930 s. Until the 1970 s, and the rise of inexpensive manufacturing in China, Britain used to have hundreds of frame-makers up and down the country.Today it has four.

” What you are seeing is a potential monopoly, and health risks that brings ,” told Handley. While it’s easy to fixate on the brands and the profits of the giants of the optical sector, the industry as a whole must expand dramatically in order to serve the world’s growing, ageing populations and increasing myopia among the young.” The peril is if their proposed answer to these problems turns out not to be the answer ,” said Handley.” They have stifled all opponent, and so nobody else has the chance to come up with the answers .” The stakes are highest in parts of the world that currently do not have anything like enough access to eyewear- what the industry calls the” white spaces” of Africa and parts of Latin America and Asia.

” It is always better if there is more diversity in the market, and less predominance ,” said Prof Naidoo, of the Brien Holden Institute, about the impact of the merger.” I don’t think everyone can argue with that .” In 2013, Naidoo was one of the authors on a groundbreaking newspaper that forecast that half the world’s population will be shortsighted by 2050- virtually 5 billion people. In the course of a single generation, across the world, from Inuit communities in Alaska to secondary-school students in Northern Ireland, researchers have recorded a rough doubling in the number of people who become short-sighted as children.

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