The spectacular power of Big Lens | The long read


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

    If you have been wearing glass for years, like me, it can be surprising to discover that you perceive “the worlds” thanks to a few giant companies that you have never heard of. Fretting about the fraying edge of motorway lightings at night, or terms that slip on the page, and occasionally spending a fate 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 our society which is both a medical device that you don’t want and a manner accessory which you do.

    Buying them, in my own experience anyway, is a fraught, somewhat exciting exercise 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 occupying a new, slightly sharper version of your existing self.

    The $100 bn( PS74bn) eyewear industry is built on sentiments such as this. In the trade, the choreography that takes you from the consulting chamber to the luring, bare-brick showing 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 expense, combined , no more than about PS30 to create ), we are very happy, happier in fact, when paying 10 or 20 times that amount.” 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 necessity corrective lenses to determine well. In Britain, that translates to some 35 million people. But it’s hardly a topic of national dialogue. To the casual observer, 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 determine masks the underlying arrangement of the global eyewear business. Over the last generation, just two companies have risen above all the remainder to predominate service industries. The lenses in my glass- 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 corporation with an unparalleled combination of factories, decorator labels and retail outlets. Luxottica pioneered the use of luxury brands in the optical business, and one of the many powerful functions of epithets 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 most significant 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 stimulate the marketplace feeling 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 study, read on the beach, follow the whiteboard in biology lessons, kind text messages to our grandchildren, land aircraft, watch old movies, write thesis and glance across eateries, hoping to look slightly more intelligent and interesting than we actually are. Last time, the two companies had a mixed client base that is somewhere between Apple’s and Facebook’s, but with none of the hassle and its further consideration of being as well known.

    Now they are becoming one. On 1 March, regulators in the EU and the US devoted permission for the world’s largest optical companies to form a single corporation, which will be known as EssilorLuxottica. The new firm will not technically be a monopoly: Essilor currently has around 45% of the prescription lenses marketplace, and Luxottica 25% of the frames. But in seven centuries of spectacles, 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 producers from Hong Kong to Peru. But it also represents a response to an unprecedented moment in the story of human eyesight namely, the accelerating degradation of our eyes. For several thousand years, human being have lived in more or less advanced civilizations, reading, 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 ensue is that in various regions of the world, we are becoming a species wearing lenses. The want varies depending where you go, because different populations have differing genetic inclinations to poor eyesight, but it is there, and growing, and probably 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 world outbreak of myopia, or shortsightedness, which has doubled among children and young people within a single generation. For a long time, scientists belief myopia was principally determined by our genes. But about 10 years ago, it became clear that the lane children were growing up was harming their eyesight, too. The impact 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 teens and young adults, the proportion is more like 90%. In Seoul, 95% of 19 -year-old humen 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 the standard rules, start wearing glass because they notice everything has gone a little out of focus. It is in order to take part in new different forms of entertainment and labour. The mass marketplace in spectacles did not emerge when they were invented, in 13 th-century Italy, but 200 year later, alongside the printed word in Germany, because people wanted to read.

    In 2018, an estimated 2.5 billion people, mainly in India, Africa and China, are thought to need spectacles, but had not yet been means to have their eyes tested or to buy them.” The visual subdivide”, as NGOs call it, is one of those vast world shortcomings that suddenly induces sense when you think about it. Across the developing world, straightforward myopia and presbyopia, the medical epithet for longsightedness, ought to have linked with everything from high street 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 times people were living chiefly outside ,” said Hubert Sagnieres, Essilor’s chairman and chief executive, where reference is 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 countries around the world with eyewear over the coming decades.” I am driving a highly profitable corporation ,” 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 service industries .” One investor described the new firm as a” category assassin “. In many conversations, people describing him arrival, which would have been genuinely inconceivable a generation ago, as both extraordinary and somehow inevitable at the same hour. That struck me as the kind of contradiction you come across more frequently 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 feeling 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 the age of 14. In 1961, Del Vecchio opened training workshops in the town of Agordo, in the Dolomite mountains. He was 25, and to begin on his own. The valley around Agordo was emptying out because of the closing of a mine, and the cities was giving away ground to companies that were willing to move there. Del Vecchio asked for 3,000 sq metres on the riverbank to build a factory to construct proportions for spectacles. He had a young family, and in time, he built a house next door to the workshop so he had been able to stair from one to the other, starting his period at 3am.

    Over the next half century, Del Vecchio grew his corporation, which was called Luxottica, into the world’s greatest manufacturer of glass frames. In an industry that was traditionally fragmented and small-scale, the totality of Del Vecchio’s ambition took his contenders by surprise. He sought to control every element in the business, from the metal alloys 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 style homes such as Armani, Ralph Lauren and Chanel. He constructed factories in China, acquired eyesight 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 boy. A few years ago, people guessed his job had run its course. But in January 2017, at persons under the age of 81, Del Vecchio announced the greatest deal of their own lives, in which he also fastened the final missing portion for his frames- the lenses- when Luxottica agreed to merge with Essilor.” He wants to do this merger ,” a former colleague mentioned,” guessing he will leave behind this great company that they are able to last for 100 times .”

    When I arrived in Agordo one recent afternoon, it was thinking about starting to snow. The township rests among steep wooded hills and the bare gray sides of mountains. The blue buildings of the Luxottica factory, with Del Vecchio’s house still standing by the entryway, glowed across the river. Although the flower 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 time, Del Vecchio hosts a Christmas dinner for the plant’s 4,500 laborers( the town of Agordo has a population of 4,000 ), which is entertained by an Italian popping starring of his select.” People are screaming and hollering when he comes in ,” said Giorgio Striano, Luxottica’s chief operating officer. In Agordo, Del Vecchio is referred to as simply, “< em> Il Presidente “.

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

    For the company’s 30 th anniversary, in 1991, Del Vecchio refurbished 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 shut up for the working day. The first glasses were almost certainly stimulated 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, spectacles 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 retraced 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 spectacles; and some pink “< em> occhiali appartenenti a Elton John .” No one knows why it took 400 times to throw the arms on glass- which are known as temples, and were pioneered in London in the early 18 th century- so they finally sat comfortably on people’s ears. To recognize another historic milestone, one cabinet also held a facsimile of Luxottica’s slender debut catalogue, from 1971, when the company constructed 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 conversations turned to the personal charisma, and menace, of Del Vecchio.” He’s the godfather ,” said Dean Butler, who founded LensCrafters in 1983.( Del Vecchio bought it in 1995.)” The godfather, to me, is the guy . He operates it .” One former senior Luxottica executive told me:” Honestly, he kind of rules by fear .” Very few opticians would even mention Del Vecchio’s epithet- lending him a Voldemort-like aura- for fear of offending him, however unlikely that are likely to. One talked about” get a horse’s psyche in the bed “. Another concluded our interview by saying:” You can quote me as long as it is just like I am sucking Del Vecchio’s dick .”

    I took A Man Who Sees Far back to my inn. Even in the company’s hagiography, Del Vecchio comes 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 jet.( Del Vecchio rarely dedicates interviews; he declined to speak to me .)” There “werent any” kisses , no snuggles ,” his eldest daughter, Marisa, recollects in the book.” Frankly, we were scared of him .”

    Del Vecchio constructed the empire of Luxottica on two notions. The first was to do everything itself. After the company’s initial progression from portions to frames in the early 1970 s, it set off, step by step, to control the entire process of making and selling glass, from acquiring the raw materials to selling its own products in its 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 attain the best stuff, why doesn’t everybody buy it ?”

    For the first 25 times, Luxottica remained on the wholesale side of service industries- “behind the curtain”, as it is known- selling its glass through opticians to the public. In the 1990 s, nonetheless, Del Vecchio chose he craved 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 ,” mentioned Roberto Chemello, the chief executive at the time. Luxottica afterward estimated the index “mustve 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 corporation that owned LensCrafters, the country’s largest optical chain, in 1995. On newspaper, the deal appeared outlandish. US Shoe was five times larger than Luxottica, and its board did not want to sell. Having its own stores would also throw Luxottica in direct competitor with hundreds of thousands of optometrists it had been rendering 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 deal 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 exactly the formula they have employed ever since ,” mentioned 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 expend 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 limbs 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, engineers, mills, supplying 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 rivals. It likewise maintains a larger proportion of its profits as a result.

    In the factory in Agordo, I learnt 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 create. With its own decorators, 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 ,” mentioned Striano, the operations chief. Taking into account all the different colours and face shapes( Japanese snouts are not the same as Latino noses ), Luxottica has around 27,000 models in production at any one time. Its flowers turned off 400,000 pairs of frames per day. I asked Striano if any other corporation went close.” I suppose nobody ,” he said.

    Del Vecchio’s second great insight is the one that changed the specific characteristics of the optical business- and that was to combine it with the fashion industry. Although decorators such as Pierre Cardin and Christian Dior had been experimenting with frames since the 1960 s, Del Vecchio learnt a behavior to take their minds, and more importantly, their labels, to a mass market. 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 bargain transformed the glass play. Until then, customers in Europe and America who wanted fancy sights had to rely on staid, industry epithets 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 made something ,” as one Luxottica manager artfully told me,” to make 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 building so much fund 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 creates under licence( Michael Kors, Paul Smith, DKNY, Burberry and so on ).

    People in service industries have pointed out that taste in frames follows a roughly 30 -year cycle, from metal, to rimless, to acetate and back again, in which familiar sight shapes recur and then disappear. The tendency right now is towards metal, and intends that last flowered in Ronald Reagan’s America. In the “Style Area” in Agordo, on the factory’s first floor, I met Mario Mollo, a senior product manager.” You see now the 80 s is becoming quite popular ,” he said.” You consider shallow, very broad .”

    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 angle of the lens meets the front of your cornea ). The Leonardo had an unusual temple, in which a curving part of wire “mustve been” sandwiched between two pieces of acetate.” Sometimes this one is not easy to find the right bending ,” mentioned Mollo, retracing his finger along the depict. 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 timber and looked like a carnival float.” With sunlight, you can go totally crazy ,” said Mollo. Luxottica had made only 100 for the entire world. “Crazy,” told Mollo,” but sold out .”

    The transformation of glasses from a medical machine to a means of self-expression, like clothes or sneakers, has been a source of pleasure for millions of people. But it has also obscured their original intent, and complicated efforts to distribute them as easily as, tell, 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 programme, conducting eye tests and distributing glasses in rural China.” They were so happy having the possibility to see. They were hugging us. It was really not for style ,” he mentioned.” Then they started, you are familiar, looking at themselves ,”- Mollo paused for a second-” and the manner 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 producing eye-health NGOs, told me.

    My last stop in Agordo was Luxottica’s sample room, a broad, quiet, carpeted space appearing out over the river. The chamber contains every current Luxottica design, organized 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 said, pausing amongst the hierarchies of Ralph Lauren, Valentino and Bulgari modelings.” 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 glasses off my face to identify the tortoiseshell acetate, which is known as Havana. His own glasses 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. Three months later, he shut the plants and shifted production to China and Italy. Over the following financial year and a half, Luxottica receded Ray-Ban from 13,000 retail outlets, hiked their prices and radically improved the quality: to enhance 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 “ve 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. Truly? Ray. Ban. Banning rays from the sunlight ?” the former administrator said.” But he was right .”

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

    How did just two companies- one in frames, and one in lenses- come to dominate something as generic, as obvious, as glass? It’s almost as if the world had one manufacturer for pens, and the other for ink. The situations 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 are able buy a cheap pair of glasses- for reading or for distance- out of a rack in Woolworth’s, or from a jewellery store, or a guy in the street. Eyewear was a aircraft 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 journal 3 years later .)

    It was the birth of the optometry profession, around 1900, that changed things. This was a new spawn of sober, respectable spectacle-sellers- not unlike pharmacists- who are seeking to standardise eye tests and to restrict the sale of glass to licensed professionals. Their objective, for the most component, was to raise standards. Eyeglass pedlars in the 18 th and 19 th centuries were notorious for defrauds and faulty lenses. But there was also another compelling reason to take a inexpensive, widely used product and set it in the hands of a few authorised marketers- 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 comprises: within the optical industry, optometrists are always being teased for their chippiness and self-importance.” One stair above dermatology ,” a former Luxottica executive sniped to me ).

    But the new professionals persevered and, in a manner that is, the story of optometry for much of the 20 th century was of acquiring new ways to protect their spot. 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 forms of advertise, for example, which is able to army them to spell out their costs and allow a user to shop around. In some places, this reached ridiculous extremes: in Kentucky, for a day, optometrists’ signs could not be more than four inches high. Under Britain’s Opticians Act of 1958, the showing of costs was banned wholly, which meant that opticians were more or less free to attain them up on the spot.” The price would come from a little black book ,” one veteran practitioner told me.” There was a lot of sharp practice around .”

    Limiting the number of glasses vendors committed the largest optical producers opportunities to try and corner world markets. As early as 1923, the American government was analyse 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 manufactured 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 arrived on the scene. In 1972, Essel and Silor, two French optical companies, coalesced and began sell aggressively into the US market. Essilor specialised in plastic lenses, who the hell is supplanting glass, and it also had a magical product: “Varilux”, the world’s first progressive lens, fabricated by an Essel engineer named Bernard Maitenaz in 1959. Progressive lenses allow people who are both long- and shortsighted- typically older clients- to blend 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 innovation 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 marketings 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 purpose, exactly how they work. For the last half century, persuading opticians to prescribe Essilor, as opposed to Hoya or Zeiss, the company’s main contenders, has been painstaking, face-to-face job. One British optician, who stocks Essilor, describing him to me this style:” Is there a difference between an Audi, a BMW or a Mercedes? Likely not. But you prefer that badge to that badge, or the style they win hearts and thinkers .” For years, the company brought along 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 operates ,” one industry veteran told me.

    And when all else fails, Essilor- like its contenders, and like all wholesalers- utilizes financial incentives to keep its clients fulfilled. Opticians and industry analysts that I spoke to for this article described how Essilor employs so-called ” spiff money”- offering stores large-scale, multi-year discounts and cash bonuses for selling its products- in order to squeeze out the competition.” Essilor wants to dominate this industry worldwide ,” one retailer told me.” They are actually a well operated 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 patrons 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 days, their wholesale price, it is the lenses where they induce the most fund, accusing markups of 700% or 800% to their customers. The largest margins of all are on complex progressive lenses and protected varnishes- for scratch opposition, or to cut out blue light- features that expense Essilor a few pennies to construct, 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 telling Ray-Ban would cost $150, PS150, EUR1 50 and the equivalent in various regions of the world. A little bit like the Big Mac, right ?” one former marketing director told me.” But lenses? Nobody knows how much lenses expense. The consumers don’t know. Nobody knows .”

    Some opticians call Essilor” The Big E “. The corporation boasts of furnishing 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 corporation has not restricted itself to lenses by any means. If Luxottica has invested the last quarter of a century buying up the most conspicuous elements of the optical business( the frames, the brands and the high-street chains) then Essilor has busied itself in the invisible components, acquiring lens manufacturers, tool makers, prescription lab( where glass are put together) and the science of sight itself.

    The company holds more than 8,000 patents and monies university ophthalmology chairs around the world. In deals that rarely stimulate the business pages, Essilor buys up Belgian optical laboratories, Chinese resin manufacturers, Israeli instrument makers and British e-commerce websites. You can find weaves on optometrist message boards with headings like” Essilor Has Purchased 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, thinks really, of the two companies joining forces-out began more than a decade ago. The suggestion has only one intuitive appeal- the fulfilling click of lenses with frames- but there were considerable obstacles. The first was cultural. Essilor might be huge, but it has retained the seem of a traditional, French industrial endeavour: 55% of its employees are shareholders of the company. Luxottica, on the other hand, functioned more or less like a monarchy, with none of the managing arrangements of most multibillion-dollar companies.” The corporate governance and headquarters of Luxottica were Mr Del Vecchio’s dining-room table ,” one former manager in the US business recollected of the early 2000 s.” We would wing to Italy, go to his home, depict him our annual programme … He was like,’ Go do that again .'”

    The corporations assured themselves differently too.” I belief Essilor, while not a modeling company by any means, has a moral intent ,” the former administrator said.” With Luxottica, it’s just lip service. It is all about domination .” The most infamous Luxottica deals carried an boundary of barbarism. 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 car 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 one-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 material like generating fake Oakleys ,” a former Luxottica executive who was involved in the strategy told me.” There was a kind of campaign 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 decided 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 corporation. Under Guerra, Luxottica rationalised its manufacturing, changing more production to China. It likewise 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 deal with Essilor, find the company as a long-term competitor.( Guerra declined to speak with me ).” He did not want to merge with Essilor ,” a colleague mentioned.” He wanted to protect us in a different way .”

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

    In many lanes, the final chapter of Del Vecchio’s regulation at Luxottica has been chaotic and disorienting. Guerra was soon forced out. After that, Del Vecchio went through four chief executives in three years. In his early 80 s, he is no longer the force that he once was. Subordinates told me that Del Vecchio can no longer operate 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 actually doesn’t trust anyone ,” one told me.

    But throughout his shaky return, Del Vecchio retained his eyes on the prize, fulfilling in secret with Sagnieres, the CEO and chairman of Essilor, until, by the summer of 2016, Sagnieres said, “it was obvious” that the bargain would go ahead. When the two men announced the establishment of the mixed 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 daydream .”

    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 measuring rates of myopia and presbyopia at all. The combined corporation can choose to interpret the fact-finding mission more or less however it wants. It could share new technologies, screen populations for eye both problems and flood “the worlds” with good-quality, affordable eyewear; or it could use its commercial predominance to choke supplying, jack up costs and build billions. It could go either way.

    Right now it is EssilorLuxottica’s putative competitives in grown-up marketplaces, such as the US and Europe, that are most anxious about the power of the “companies “. In January, Doug Perkins, the other co-founder of Specsavers, warned that EssilorLuxottica was ” throwing millions of pounds” at new technologies, such as automated optometry kiosks and online retailing, that threaten the future of Britain’s high-street opticians altogether.” That is 100% certain to happen ,” said Perkins.

    The bigger video takes a moment to discern. Late last year, I visited Britain’s most important optical collection, which is kept in the basement of the College of Optometrists, a townhouse all over 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 manufacturers, detecting the histories of service industries as he goes along.” It’s under the radar ,” he mentioned.” It’s not something that is talked about .” When I asked Handley about the creation of EssilorLuxottica, he pointed to an age-old presentation of British sight portions, 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 ,” mentioned Handley. While it’s easy to fixate on the brands and the profits of the monsters of the optical sector, service industries as a whole must expand dramatically in order to serve the world’s growing, ageing populations and increasing myopia among the young.” The danger is if their proposed answer to these problems turns out not to be the answer ,” said Handley.” They have stifled all opposition, and so nobody else has the chance to come up with the answers .” The stakes are highest in parts of the world that are now do not have anything like enough access to eyewear- what the industry calls the” white spaces” of Africa and parts of The countries of latin america and Asia.

    ” It is always better if there is more diversity in world markets, and less predominance ,” told 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 paper that forecast that half the world’s population is likely to be myopic by 2050- virtually 5 billion people. In the course of a single generation, in various regions of the world, from Inuit communities in Alaska to secondary-school students in Northern Ireland, researchers have recorded a bumpy doubling in the number of people who become short-sighted as children.