In the past thirty years, Britain has slowly lost its eyewear industry, and the reasons why link back to a number of political economy missteps.
In post-war Britain, the new Labour government created a set of eyewear frames through the National Health Service (NHS), and offered manufacturers a subsidy if they would produce them. Nearly all British manufacturers took advantage of the offer and, naturally, eventually became dependent. It was, after all, easier to produce for the domestic market rather than go international, where competition was stiff and they’d have to go forth without government support. It wasn’t the smartest long-term strategy, but the short-term gains created lock-ins that made British eyewear companies small and limited.
In the 1980s, Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government came into power and dismantled the NHS frame program, as well as deregulated the optician’s trade. The sudden disruption shook the industry and quite a few companies went under. Later in the decade, foreign companies came in through lowered trade barriers. When foreign manufacturers such as Luxottica took over the market, many British companies couldn’t compete and eventually folded. Later on, the death knell for British eyewear manufacturing came when the global demand for high-end acetate frames began to decline.
There are a number of things that could have happened to avoid this. The original Labour government could have coupled export incentives with the subsidies, so that British manufacturers would both have domestic support and be encouraged to grow on the international market. Such policy couplings were common in East Asia during the second half of the 20th century, and often cited as the cause of the sudden economic rise of South Korea, Taiwan, and Japan. Likewise, the Conservative government could have weaned British companies off of their government dependency, rather that just suddenly pulled the plug. Unfortunately, the two missteps were too big, and together they killed the British eyewear manufacturing trade.
Today, there only three British manufacturers of eyewear - Opera Opera, Algha, and Premier Optical Service. The companies that we think of as British (e.g. Anglo American Eyewear, Cambridge Optical, and Paul Green Eyewear) have long ceased as manufacturing enterprises. The companies that do remain, however, are incredible. Opera Opera, for example, manufactures handmade frames out of very high-end materials. Unlike other glasses on the market, their frames use genuine rivet hinges & trims, not mock pins & trims ‘stuck on’ on modern mass produced sunken joints. They make both bespoke spectacles and ready-to-wear “retro models,” including those that were in the original NHS program.
Photos of their frames are below. The first two photos are of a pair of frames made from Asian Buffalo horn. The material has natural striped colors running throughout and a luster that’s built from buffing the material (not by applying a gloss). Unfortunately, they cost about $1,500, so they’ll most likely only be admired on your computer. Still, even if you can only view them online, I think they’re a testament of the quality of British eyewear manufacturing. Shame that we lost it.
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- muteboy72 said: I still have my NHS frames in a drawer somewhere. They were yellow metal, with a removable “shell” edging. I think the eighth picture down is the one. Thatcher, Thatcher, milk snatcher. Still not dead.
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