Even if you’re unfamiliar with American Optical, you’re probably familiar with the brand’s work. His executives were favorites of JFK and Malcolm X, they co-starred with Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver and, like Omega’s Speedmaster, was the first instrument of its kind to go to the moon. The local handmade eyewear maker may have fallen into oblivion, but now it’s back and ready to reclaim its legacy.
Even at American Optical’s mid-century heyday, the brand was already over a hundred years old. In 1833, jeweler William Beecher began making silver eyeglasses and by the end of the 19th century the Massachusetts-based company was producing frames and lenses for millions of Americans. By making the goggles widely available and outfitting American pilots, soldiers, and champions, AO has become a household name. Yet in recent decades it had gone from being the world’s largest eyewear company to a skeletal operation, producing only two metal frames, Original Pilot and General, and none of the acetate models.
Few industries have consolidated more over the years than eyewear. It’s an open secret that nearly every major brand outsources to a single European behemoth, making eyewear manufacturing one of the most seamless in fashion. Any brand that makes their own frames today is swimming upstream, and making them in America doubles the challenge because the machinery and skills needed have gotten rusty. To renovate the brand, any consultant would have advised AO to move manufacturing overseas while evoking its glorious past. Instead, AO doubled down on its roots. Owner Allen McKinley turned to Scott Shapiro, an industry veteran who has spent the last decade rebuilding the production of acetate frames in the United States at his family business Europa in Chicago.
“Our factory was the only one producing acetate,” says Shapiro Robb Report, explaining the magnitude of the challenge. “The reason it’s really hard to do these things is that the whole network has been lost. In Wenzhou [China], everything you need is there: the raw material, the acetate, the hinges, the nose pads, the decor, and more when you want to hire you can find people who have already done this. This is not true in Chicago; every person we hire must be trained and none of the machines can be purchased here. When we opened our factory, we ordered all the machines from Europe and Asia. Nothing came with English instructions as no English speakers have ever used them before.
Piece by piece, the team moved and restarted production of historic AO models in Chicago. The star of the AO catalog remains the Original Pilot, derived from AO’s Flight Goggle 58 of 1958, the aviator’s favorite aviator for decades (“the only sunglasses authorized for flight-wear by aircrews of the Navy”, according to a pilot magazine). Equally iconic is the revived Saratoga, out of production for decades, now available in six colorways and two sizes. This charismatic, slightly curved acetate model was JFK’s favorite, seen in countless poolside and boating photos. “A lot of people think they’re Wayfarers, but they’re not!” Shapiro laughs.
The most surprising might be the Oxford, a mixed steel-acetate frame with a circular lens and futuristic cutouts. “It’s very modern, almost edgy,” Shapiro says, “but actually it’s almost an exact replica of a 1930s AO style. It’s amazing how you can take something very old and , with a few slight tweaks, it can be totally new.The latest release is the incomparable Sirmont, a 1950s browline model favored by Lyndon B. Johnson and Malcolm X. It was launched a month ago, after extensive R&D deepened to modernize the chunky style to comfortably fit this century’s larger face shapes.
The revived AO is a celebration of mid-century style, from modernist acetates to muscular aviators with signature Skymaster lenses. All of these frames have a distinct gravity, taken from the American icons that wore them in a previous incarnation. But AO’s comeback is also about reviving the talent and tradition of eyewear-making in the United States: not just pulling lost styles from the archives, but relearning how to make them, as if it were the first time.
With its portfolio of classic shades starting to fill out, AO is now looking to launch a new optical collection in 2023. “We’re incorporating some sunglasses styles and new designs,” Shapiro says, “but still in following the same model.: American optical heritage, in a new way for a modern audience.