In the Thierry frame factory, in the town of Morbier, the gestures follow one another without haste. From here 500,000 frames leave per year, which will end up at the other end of France or in the United States. If the name of the subcontractor is not known to the general public, it is a reference in the sector, since it is the largest eyewear production factory still active in France. In all, nearly 3 million frames are produced each year by French manufacturers.
In Thierry’s warehouses, 200 color references, in the form of acetate plates, are waiting to be cut into rectangles, from which will emerge, after countless manipulations – up to 80 operations in total – gleaming frames .
For the past ten years, the family business has been investing approximately 1 million euros per year – 10% of annual turnover – in the modernization of the Morbier site. And the traditional know-how remains present. Especially in the basement, in the polishing workshop, where there is a slight smell of resin.
In plywood barrels, the frames, in contact with beech or birch sticks, rotate for 96 hours, three cycles in total which will allow the material to be polished even more.
– The wind is turning –
“We stayed with the traditional, more precise method. You need real know-how to manage the polishing workshops: it changes according to the seasons, the temperature, the humidity”, explains Joël Thierry, the boss, more than 40 years of business behind him, also president of the professional union of eyewear manufacturers in the Jura.
Even if “today, Chinese manufacturers are beginning to know how to do well,” he smiles.
This is not a point of detail. The Jura, the historic cradle of eyewear, experienced waves of relocations in the 1980s and 1990s. And the vast majority of frames found in stores are now made in Asia. Added to this is a strong movement of concentration, accelerated by the marriage in 2018 of the Italian Luxottica and the French Essilor, which gave birth to a global giant, from design to distribution.
For three decades, the region has lost a significant number of manufacturers. Eyewear only employs a thousand people, compared to 10,000 in the 1950s.
But the tide seems to be turning. The pandemic has been there, disrupting supply chains, and interest in made in France is resurgent.
“For frames, there is currently an increase in production capacity to meet strong demand,” observes Laure-Anne Copel, secretary general of the group of optical manufacturers and manufacturers.
– The slope of the nose –
“Our order books are full until February-March”, abounds Joël Thierry. The company will soon inaugurate a new site, dedicated to frames for a big name in luxury.
The appeal of eyewear made in France goes beyond borders. A few kilometers away, in the small town of Morez (Jura), the Meilleurs Ouvriers de France (MOF) offer training to a varied audience. That day, Alex, a young American from Arizona, applies himself to file a model of glasses millimeter by millimeter.
“We take into account different measurements of the face, the pupillary distance, the slope of the nose: these are the fundamentals”, explains Jacques Depussay, himself MOF.
But this renewed interest requires having a skilled workforce, and therefore encouraging young people to choose these trades. “A qualified technician with experience quickly earns 3,500 euros gross per month”, reports Joël Thierry, who believes that French glasses offer real opportunities. “Provided you have the capacity in terms of employees”.
Highly coveted employees: the Lycée de Morez, labeled high school for optical trades, trains technicians in micro-techniques, exactly what eyewear manufacturers need. Profiles also sought after by neighboring Switzerland, for Haute Horlogerie. But there, with salaries almost doubled.