Maison Bonnet: at the origin of the manufacture of the most recognizable glasses in the world

In the office above their Paris boutique in the gardens of the Palais-Royal, brothers Franck and Steven Bonnet tell me about an American customer who has just walked in and wants a pair of glasses. “He wants something today, right away,” says Franck. “And that’s not how it works.” While finding a good pair of glasses takes time and money, the perfect pair involves a much bigger investment. At Maison Bonnet, a family business since its creation in 1950, there is almost nothing ready-to-wear available, and no express service. Most of the company’s activities are completely bespoke, involving 12 face measurements and between two and nine months of work, with up to 30 hours of manual work on each set of frames.

“We have ready-to-fit executives, but they represent maybe 10% of our activity,” explains Franck, “the craftsman” and CEO of Maison Bonnet, which also has a third brother, John. “The other 90% are completely bespoke. And even then, ready-to-assemble frames require an hour of assembly and customization. We say on our website that we create 20 designs a year and make 20 available, but that’s not true. We earn a fraction of that because we don’t have the time or the capacity.

Franck (left) and Steven Bonnet in front of their Parisian boutique © Alex Crétey Systermans
A craftsman holds a sheet of tortoiseshell to the light

A sheet of tortoise shell. Maison Bonnet only uses shells from turtles that have died of natural causes © Alex Crétey Systermans

If the concept of a family business in luxury, from Hermès to Missoni via the Boulangerie Poilâne, is accompanied by a rich storytelling, always useful for marketing, it also means that, generally, everyone cares a lot more of his product than he is. could otherwise. Their signature is on everything they do. And it’s inherently authentic. “My brother John takes care of all the tortoiseshell parts with my father, who is the master”, says Franck. “John makes sure that all the leftovers are recycled and that we don’t waste anything. Then my mother, Marie-Christine, takes care of the administration, and I try to focus on a vision for the brand for the future. My 20-year-old nephew, Matis, John’s son, is also learning the trade.

Frames Maison Bonnet Jackie O 1960, POA

Frames Maison Bonnet Jackie O 1960, POA

Alber executives, POA

Alber executives, POA

Executives Olivier, POA

Executives Olivier, POA

Pei frames, POA

Pei frames, POA

Only EB Meyrowitz and Tom Davies in London and Wesley Knight in Nashville are close to Maison Bonnet’s league. In France, Maison Bonnet is a national treasure. In 2000, it became the only eyewear company to receive the title of Maître d’Art, the prestigious government award for arts and crafts. Like champagne and Chanel, it is considered by the French as a brand that defines quality and refinement as an international ambassador. Christian Bonnet, the brothers’ father, began learning eyewear making from his father, Robert, when he was 14 years old. Robert founded Maison Bonnet in 1950 after learning the trade from his father Alfred. Loyal customers like the architect Joseph Dirand were drawn to Maison Bonnet by its historical significance – in Dirand’s case, it was the fact that they made Le Corbusier’s distinctive frames.

The workshop bench where the glasses are finished by hand
The workshop workbench where the glasses are finished by hand © Alex Crétey Systermans

I suspect that Le Corbusier would have come to Maison Bonnet with well-formed ideas about what he wanted to put on the bridge of the nose; just like Jony Ive, another Bonnet wearer known for having an uncompromising view on form and structure. “A lot of times we ask them if they have any ideas of what they’re looking for, but they say they come to us because we know what we’re doing,” says Creative Manager Steven. “When we first met Jony, we didn’t like what he was wearing. He didn’t like progressive lenses, he just had glasses for reading, constantly pressed to the tip of his nose and looking over them, like a grandfather. It was a struggle to get him to consider a design that actually matched his face, with lenses he could keep in place for a meeting, in front of a screen, and for reading notes.

Bonnet’s list of famous clients is long: Jackie Onassis wore the figure-eight glasses, and Jacques Chirac and Audrey Hepburn were also clients. But perhaps the most iconic frames belonged to Yves Saint Laurent. When people come to the store in London or Paris, they regularly ask for something YSL-style, and the Bonnets ask, “What era?” For Saint Laurent, defective eyesight has become an opportunity to dress up. “He was incredibly shy,” Steven says. “When my father made his first pair of glasses, he imagined an outline, but it didn’t work. It covered the brow line, which you should never do. It makes your expression invisible. But with each new pair, he wanted them more angular and bigger. He wanted to hide.

A selection of frames in progress hang from the edge of a lamp in the workshop

A selection of frames in progress © Alex Crétey Systermans

Buffer polish a pair of frames

Buffer polishing of a pair of frames © Alex Crétey Systermans

Glasses House Beanie are, due to their bespoke nature, all about personal style, whether for the shy or the extrovert. But it’s often one of the Bonnet workers who determines what that style is and offers suggestions. One of the few customers with an obsession was interior designer Christian Liaigre, who brought in a pair of the French equivalent of NHS specifications. “They are quite industrial, and quite nice”, explains Franck. “They come in one design, and Liaigre wanted that design, but modified to suit him perfectly, and made of a noble material. It was one of the few times someone else picked up the pencil and got involved in the design process. We added twists, then made them in tortoiseshell.

The Bonnet family is known for their use of tortoiseshell, which is one of the rarest materials you can use for frames. They emphasize that they are cruelty-free; only the shells of turtles that died of natural causes are used, and the older the turtle, the thicker its shell, so there is no point in “fishing”. The material is also incredibly durable and can be repaired through a grafting process.

Although tortoiseshell is beautiful and resistant, it only represents around 6% of Maison Bonnet’s production; 20% is in buffalo horn and the rest in acetate. When someone wants to invest in tortoiseshell (and costs aside, you’re looking at nine months rather than two or three for acetate), the Bonnets recommend a backup pair for exercise, gardening, or anything that makes you break out in a sweat, as the moisture will eventually damage the natural material. And their acetate is by no means a second best – if you compare the best acetate with high-end plastic frames, the difference is as obvious as cashmere next to polyester. “The quality of the acetate we use is superb; when you polish it for a client, even the smell is different,” explains Franck. “Italian and Japanese [acetate] are the best. When you have such a small production scale, you can select the best one. If you’re making thousands of pairs of glasses, you’re not going to budget for that.

Just as no face is symmetrical, no two frames are the same. While a bespoke suit involves the most precise measurements, the production of bespoke eyewear requires forensic attention. A change in angle or length is measured to the nearest tenth of a millimeter. The Bonnets are masters of measurement as well as manufacturing. And there are only eight people involved in the production process at the brand’s workshop in Burgundy. Many have been there for a long time.

Franck Bonnet at the workshop
Franck Bonnet in the workshop © Alex Crétey Systermans

But how will they find the next generation of makers? “We found that there are a lot of young people who are bored of living their life on screen and want to get involved in physical craftsmanship,” says Franck. “We often get a call from a design school who thinks they’ve found someone with skills that would suit us. There is not necessarily a way to teach what we do. Once we had a guy who was a tattoo artist and he had great drawing skills. Another made knives with Damascus steel blades and horn handles. Everyone on our team is an artist. It’s about having the intelligence of the hand.