STATE Optical Co. – From Unthinkable to Unstoppable

I arrived ahead of my meeting with Jason Stanley, co-founder of STATE Optical Co., to review my notes. My plan? Tour the plant, understand how luxury American eyewear is made, and document the steps.

When I left the plant 120 minutes later, my plan changed. There is a step-by-step process for making eyewear, but at STATE the steps are different. Their process is unique and careful. It’s mindful and proud. At STATE there are many, many steps. In fact, there are over 75 that go into each pair. Many are perceived as “extra” by other makers, but STATE takes them anyway to ensure everything is “just right,” and because they take pride in their eyewear and the people wear them.

State Optical - dry-tumbling

Inspired by the company’s history, the willingness of its founders to take a risk on themselves, and their mission to do what all others in the industry said was unthinkable – make luxury eyewear in America – I knew I’d be doing STATE a disservice by focusing on their process alone. I knew I needed to write about STATE’s commitment to the customer, detail and their dedication to the craft; their responsibility to the livelihoods of almost 50 employees, many who have a family.

I thought, these owners, this company – this is the American Dream.

State Optical - Blake Kuwahara
Blake Kuwahara, Licensed Optometrist and Designer

And this is the story of STATE Optical Co., the first-of-its-kind brand of luxury American eyewear made proudly in Chicago, USA.

Just a Couple of Gear Heads

In 2012 first-cousins Jason Stanley and Marc Franchi, both from the California Bay Area but living in Ventura, CA, had a decision to make: wait, or create. They’d been told that manufacturing high quality eyewear in the US was impossible. And they weren’t having it.

The self-proclaimed “gear heads” who grew up taking apart and putting back together bikes and motorcycles decided to bank on their creativity, sales experience, and cold, hard, American drive.

“Marc and I always wanted to work together in some capacity. This was our opportunity to make that happen.” – Jason Stanley

Without any knowledge of eyewear manufacturing or market experience they took a risk. They decided to create.

“Where will you find your craftsman? Good luck finding and maintaining machines. What you want to do can’t be done.”

Critics

A New Beginning

In another part of the country, also in 2012, Scott Shapiro and Jerry Wolowicz, executives at a family-owned independent eyewear company, set out to meet like-minded entrepreneurs who shared their vision of “luxury eyewear made-in-America.”

When Jason, Marc, Scott and Jerry crossed paths, everything changed in a Chicago-minute. “No’s” were now “yeses” and head shakes were at last head nods.

In 2014, with a stroke of “it will be done,” Jason and Marc packed up their families and key employees and left Ventura, CA for Chicago.

From Birth to Brand: STATE Optical Co.

The name STATE Optical Co., or STATE, is

“… a nod to the fact that we’re bringing manufacturing back to the states and to Illinois in particular. It also reflects our goal to elevate the state of eyewear manufacturing,”

says Jason.

State Optical - at Work

STATE has come a long way since he and Marc attended the Vision Expo West in Las Vegas, Nevada. Jason admits that it was at the convention that he realized they had a lot to learn. He also confesses that at that point he “didn’t know what an optician was” when a buyer shared it was his profession.

While they may have crawled then, today STATE runs and finds itself in over 900 stores. Their growth is a byproduct of a combined effort of the decision-making and leadership of the founders and the grit of their employees, who Jason and his team trained themselves.

State Optical - at Work 2

Says Stanley,

“It takes dedication, pride in working with your hands, and an appreciation for bringing a lost craft back to the US (to be a STATE craftsman). STATE craftsmen have to work well as a team to create an exceptional product.”

 State Optical - b-w

Success. It Ain’t Easy.

In order to bring American-made luxury eyewear to the market, they had to teach themselves how to make it. They traveled the world to learn from people who were willing to share knowledge (PS, not everyone was willing), and scribbled notes wherever and whenever they could, taking advantage of every opportunity to grow.

They managed to build the machines they’d ordered from overseas on the fly. Keep in mind that the assembly instructions weren’t in English, so there was a language barrier and no help-desk. They even had to figure out, by trial and error, the recipe for the well-kept industry secret for dry tumbling, an integral part of the frame polishing process.

State Optical - At Work 3

Above all, they relied and continue to rely upon themselves.

“Specs”

State Optical - State Mark
Each frame includes the STATE mark, which is a pyramid of 21 dots symbolizing Illinois, the 21st state
State Optical - laser etch
Frame details are laser-etched vs. stamped. Says Jason, “Stamping is a surface treatment, which will rub off over time. Laser etching creates a recess for the painted markings, so they will always be there.”
State Optical - butting
The frames’ butting is seamless, and craftsmen ensure this by using their hands. “When running your own finger over the frame, you won’t be able feel the transition to the temple, because there is none. It’s seamless,” says Jason.
State Optical - acetate_2
STATE uses the highest quality Mazzucchelli acetate to make their eyewear, so as to yield a longer-lasting luster.
State Optical - nose pads
Crystalline nose pads ensure proper fit and comfort.
State Optical - temple_thickness
For comfort, “the temple is thicker at the hinge for increased stability, (and) then subtly thins and gently hugs the head. Past the temple bend, the temple gradually thickens again, with the temple tip as the thickest point, to properly balance the frame and hold its fit,” says Jason.

The STATE of the American Dream

Starting a business comes with its challenges, both financial and emotional. STATE has weathered its fair share of storms and managed to learn and grow after each has passed. Their success in bringing luxury, US-made eyewear made to market hinges on their commitment to their customer and the commitment to succeed.

In conclusion, the experiences, knowledge and learned skills of the foursome and their team helped them to defy odds and create a unique, innovative, high-quality product that any Chicagoan – any American – will be proud to wear.

State Optical - Success

Sources

  1. All images provided by STATE Optical Co. All images © STATE Optical Co.
  2. Jason Stanley, Co-founder, STATE Optical Co.
  3. STATE Optical Co., “Redefining Made in America.” https://stateopticalco.com.

 

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Kevin Baum

I'm a Chicago native with a passion for style, fitness, travel, and personal improvement. And pizza!