French eyewear industry struggles despite appeal of ‘Made in France’

“In the last twenty years, as production has delocalised, many companies in this area have disappeared,” lamented Jérôme Colin, President of the Jura department’s eyewear manufacturers association. He is based in Morez, the long-standing capital of French eyewear production, whose origins date back to the end of the XVIIIth century.The entire industry still accounts for 2,500 jobs in France, of which about 1,600 are in the Morez valley. According to figures by the optical manufacturers association GIFO, in the 1970s the Morez valley alone provided 10,000 jobs in eyewear manufacturing.

Yet it now risks losing another of the jewels in its crown: the Logo company is on the brink of liquidation, after the LVMH group cancelled the licence agreements for the Tag Heuer and Fred brands, on which Logo depended.According to Jérôme Colin, also the General Manager of eyewear producer Oxibis, the entire industry suffers due to its labour costs, which represent “two-thirds of the price of a frame.” Between a French and an imported frame, “there is often a price gap between 30% and 50%,” he noted.”Locally manufactured products are in demand (by French consumers), but they are not often purchased because they are too expensive,” said Colin, who recognised that this is an asset in export terms. According to GIFO, exports account for about 50% of the industry’s revenue, which in 2015 was worth €500 million.The price differential with Asian competitors can even be “between 50% and 100%” for eyeglasses labelled as ‘Origine France Garantie’ (guaranteed French provenance), stated Walter Van Hee, in charge of purchasing at distributor Optic 2000. The labelling requires that at least 50% of the product cost (for production and distribution) is generated in France.Survival lies in the high-end market Manufacturers also pointed the finger at the €150 cap on frame reimbursement by health insurers imposed since 2015, a figure that according to them is too low for French products.However, the price differential with China “is shrinking, and the notion of quality in France is set at a higher level,” reckons Jean-Michel Werling, a consultant for Atelier Paget. The latter is a small eyewear manufacturer recently created in Morez, which the French Afflelou optician group decided to hire for the production of premium eyeglasses.The majority of optician retail chains, sometimes driven by health insurance companies, are now offering French frames, though these remain a small part of their collections.”This [fact] is not uninteresting, but it must be put in the right perspective from an industrial point of view,” stated Henri Grasset, owner of Lunettes Grasset Associés, a company based in Oyonnax, the other French eyewear manufacturing hub.”Focusing on quality and differentiation more than on volumes makes some sense,” he noted, “but it requires the ability to adapt to fashion trends, and to update collections several times each year.” “The luxury segment is important for us, but it is not where we will be able to generate output volumes,” observed Jean Calamand, owner of Oyonnax-based sub-contractor Lucal, which chiefly works for small, high-end eyewear designers. “If everyone bought more French products, in eyewear as in other sectors, prices would fall thanks to economies of scale,” he said.

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