Specialty eyewear has never looked so good

June 15, 2009

Terms such as quality, style, and value may not be typically associated with the specialty eyewear industry. Certain brands are crossing the divide and making an appearance in corporate and industrial settings to provide protection and aesthetics in one package.

Key Points

Quality, style, and value may not be terms commonly associated with the specialty eyewear industry. Certain brands, however, are crossing the divide and making an appearance in corporate and industrial settings to provide protection and aesthetics to employees, all in one package.

"I don't care [whether] a guy is working on an oil rig on an ocean. When he walks into the bathroom and looks in the mirror, he wants to look good," said Joe Parsons, regional sales director in Chester, VA, for Sperian Protection (formerly Titmus Optical). "We try to be fashion conscious as well as safety-minded."

Protective eyewear is a hot topic in eye-care professional circles. Both the American Academy of Ophthalmology and the American Academy of Pediatrics have issued position papers about the importance of recommending protective sports eyewear. The topic is a major point in Healthy People 2010, a comprehensive set of disease prevention and health promotion objectives out of the U.S. Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The Vision Council's 2009 Vision Summit in Washington, DC, focused on vision protection, addressing the problems of eye injuries at home, eye strain with computers, and the need for protection from ultraviolet (UV) rays.

"Our challenge is to get products to them that look cool and make them safe in spite of themselves," said Mike Franz, senior product manager with Sperian Protection in Smithfield, RI. "As marketers, we recognize if we want to increase compliance and protection in the workplace, the first thing to do is make the product look nice so people want to wear it."

Eyewear companies are creating products that leapfrog what's been available in the past, taking specialty eyewear to a new level. New materials robust enough to withstand high temperatures or electrical hazards are being incorporated into better-looking eyewear.

Jeff Duncan, director of prescription safety eyewear for Essilor Laboratories of America Inc. in Dallas, said the market growth in safety eyewear is driven by premium technology, newer progressive lens designs, reflective lenses, two-sided anti-scratch lenses, and UV protection.

"It's really matching the consumers' eyewear solutions to the particular activities they are involved in," Duncan said. "If I'm a prescription lens wearer and I have a nice pair of lenses I wear to the office, I might not want to mow the lawn or build a deck with that same pair."

Deborah Lochli McGrath, fashion spokesperson for the Vision Council, said she's seen a positive trend in parents bringing their children in for specialty eyewear. Frames in a variety of colors can match uniforms, polarized lenses are great for sailing lessons, and sport-specific eyewear may offer high-definition lenses.

"The research and development has gotten better and far superior and is keeping up with what's happening out there," McGrath said. "Specialty eyewear is becoming part of the equipment. Those children learn that lifestyle and lessons, and as they grow they take care of that necessity."

McGrath said that anyone who doesn't offer specialty eyewear is missing out on a lucrative market.

"It's a market that's catering to younger people [who] are growing up and becoming potential clients for the rest of their lives, and [the market is] teaching them they need to take care of their eyes and have good health," she said.

Recently, prescription eyewear products that meet the American Society for Testing and Materials International standards for baseball (Hilco/Wilson Ophthalmic) entered the market. Rob Nahmias, president, Hilco, said the eyewear, which can accommodate removable prescription lenses, presented an engineering challenge, but the company saw a need and a market for it.

"It doesn't make any sense that so many kids play baseball and there was no lens that meets that standard," Nahmias said, adding that the state of New Jersey recently passed a law requiring children participating in sports to wear protective eyewear.

The same company caters to industrial safety eyewear and was the first to introduce the flex titanium frame, also known as memory metal. The frame flexes at the bridge and temples, flexing back to its original shape if bent. Although the frame has been available on the fashion side for a while, it has become available in the safety environment only within the last year.

"In a safety environment, especially where glasses are getting knocked around, it's a great benefit," Nahmias said. "The market is telling us this is something that is very much appreciated."

Franz said eye-care professionals have the greatest influence on patients simply by suggesting that they consider wearing safety eyewear when working around the house.

Parsons, who is a member of the Vision Council's Safety Protection and Eye Protection Group, said it's a matter of educating both the eye-care professional and the consumer. He equates the level of education needed with campaigns to improve safety belt usage.

"If the opportunity is there to sell a second pair of safety glasses, it's important to think about," Parsons said. "That is secondary to [the] obligation to ask patients about what they do and give them good, quality eye care."

Paul Berman, OD, FAAO, a consultant for Liberty Sport, said that eye injuries are a leading cause of vision loss for patients aged fewer than 40 years, with 27% of eye injuries occurring during sports. According to Prevent Blindness America, 90% of those injuries are preventable with the correct protective eyewear.

Dr. Berman, who is in the New Jersey-based Focus Eye Health & Vision Care practice, is a proponent of having a sports eye injury prevention center in every eye-care professional's office. The center follows his "three Is for the eyes" system:

"If you do that, you will help eliminate needless loss of sight that occurs while your patients play sports," Dr. Berman said. "It's interesting: we protect our shins with shin guards, but we don't protect our eyes with protective sports eyewear."

Tom Goeltz, a spokesman for the Vision Council, said the eye-care professional is really the gatekeeper.

"What we're trying to do with the eye-care professional is to provide programs whereby they can simply ask patients what activities they are involved in," he said.