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Innovation Extraordinaire is Essilor

By Paddy Kamen

Few companies today can claim a heritage that goes back over 150 years. Fewer still can honestly boast of a spirit and record of innovation that has transformed their industry on several occasions.

A Rich History

The historic union of two very successful French eyewear companies – Essel and Silor – that resulted in the creation of the Essilor Group
in 1972 seemed, at first, an enigma. Essel had a long history of worker ownership and Silor was firmly based on capitalist principles. It was, however, a perfect union of two firms known for significant technological innovation.

The Essel company began in 1848 when three steel spectacle frame makers formed a group known as the Association Fraternelle des Ouvriers Lunetiers (Fraternal Association of Ophthalmic Spectacle Makers). They grew by buying up workshops and factories whose owners then became members of the Société des Lunetiers. At that time the company was known as SL, after Société des Lunetiers, becoming known as Essel in 1964.

Essel manufactured and sold eyewear and optical products, compasses, precision instruments and survey equipment. By 1895 they had approximately 1,500 employees. In 1868 the company opened its first shop in London and from 1869 onwards, commission salesmen sold throughout southern Europe and Latin America.

One of Essel’s outstanding contributions to the world of vision was the invention of the first progressive lens in 1959. What began as a weekend hobby on the part of research engineer Bernard Maitenaz became part of Essel’s official research program in 1948 and by 1953 the first patent was filed.

The same spirit of brilliant innovation characterized Silor, originally known as Lissac, after its founder, Georges Lissac, who opened the first optician’s department store in Paris in 1938. Lissac was an optician who offered a free sight examination using the most advanced technology of the times. He was also the first to offer customers a package, which included a choice of frames, measurement, manufacture and lens assembly.

It was Lissac employee René Grandperret and his team whose dogged research led to the first manufacture of CR 39 lenses by polymerization and optical molding. The Orma 1000 lens was introduced in 1959, and was the first of several generations of plastic lenses that were thinner, lighter and unbreakable.

The two firms, formerly fierce rivals, signed an undertaking in 1967 and finally became Essilor in 1972.

Essilor Today

Remaining true to the spirit of its founding companies, research and development continue to figure importantly in today’s Essilor Group. Fully 5%-6% of the company’s revenues are devoted to R&D annually, and the results of this commitment continue to be as striking as the innovations of yesteryear.

Essilor’s presence in Canada began, pre-merger, in 1962 when Essel struck a deal with Optique Moderne for the distribution of the Nylor frame. Today, the Essilor Group has 31 service sites across Canada, with the largest and most comprehensive facilities in Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver.

Jean-Christophe Paris, director of marketing for Essilor Canada, says that one of the unique research methodologies developed by Essilor – the Dioptric Loop – plays a big role in helping to ensure that the scientific calculations of their designers produce a product that truly meets the needs of wearers.

The Dioptric Loop begins with an understanding of the complex physiology of wearers, including postural habits and ergonomics. Essilor has collected precise data from studies of hundreds of people over many years. This data has been translated into optical calculations that are integrated into every new design. They then subject prototypes to double blind wearer tests and re-integrate the findings back into their physiological database. This cycle is repeated until the desired results are achieved.

"Our main guideline in matters of research and development is simple: the wearer is always right," says Paris. "Every theory, every change and modification is tested against the wearer’s perception of comfort and not simply on what can be measured. Our calculations may say something will work but the customer has the final word."

The Varilux Ipseo, winner of the 2003 Silmo d’Or Award, is a perfect example of Essilor’s continuing innovation with the aim of increasing user satisfaction. "This is the first progressive lens to integrate physiological needs or ‘visual print‘ specific to each individual wearer into its design," says Paris. "The way in which one moves the head and eyes is absolutely unique to each person. By measuring those factors we ensure that the design is as unique as the person wearing it."

Always at the forefront of coating technology, the Essilor recently introduced Crizal D Alizé, a new generation of coatings that makes lenses much easier to clean, as well as more transparent and scratch-resistant. "Wearers were demanding an anti-reflective lens that is easy to clean but it also had to be easy to edge," says Paris.

Because the top layer of Crizal D Alizé and Crizal Alizé contain a high proportion of perfluorinated molecules, which produce a weak surface energy, they repel water and oil deposits. Lenses stay clean longer and are easier to clean than any other lens treatment. A double varnish coating technology also helps the lens absorb shocks and because they need to be cleaned less often there is less risk of scratching.

To make edging easier, Crizal D Alizé and Crizal Alizé lenses are covered, in the vacuum chamber, with a bluish overcoat, which temporarily reinforces adhesion to the lens surface. In addition, an edging guide outlines a simple procedure for perfect edging.

Paris says Essilor prides itself on serving optical clients quickly through their 31 regional service sites, each of which services an average of 120 points of sale, as well as on the quality of service given by the 200 skilled employees who speak with eye care professionals every day.

"Local labs that join the Essilor Group provide a quality of service through proximity to eye care professionals that cannot exist any other way. With this system we can give ECPs products and services that are adapted to their market, as well as the benefits of being part of a large company: innovative products, a guarantee of quality, technical training and marketing support."

Cultural and Educational Involvement

In addition to its commercial activities, Essilor is a leader at many levels of the Canadian optical community. Through consumer advertising and cultural event sponsorship, the Group positions itself as a leader in developing the market by creating awareness of the importance of proper eyesight.

For the last four years, Essilor has been a sponsor of Montreal- and Quebec City-based used book fairs known as Les Bouquinistes du Saint-Laurent. "We set up a tent at the fair where opticianry students answer product questions and optometry students give vision screening tests to the public," says Paris. "The tests are always accompanied by a recommendation that consumers visit an eye care professional. Last year the students performed over 7,000 screening tests at these fairs."

Other kinds of sponsorships, such as those of the Musée d'art contemporain de Montréal and the World French Language Scrabble Championship are excellent opportunities to promote good visual health.

Essilor also works in partnership with professional associations and teaching institutions. Founder of the Research Chair on Presbyopia of the Université de Montréal, it is deeply involved in scientific work in the field. A Silver Partner of the Eye Health Council, Essilor supports its activities and the diffusion of information on visual health.

Optical schools in Canada often look to industry to help advance the quality of teaching. To that end, Essilor collaborates very closely with the École d'Optométrie de l'Université de Montréal where, thanks to an edging and mounting lab headed by one of Essilor's experts in the field, optometry students can learn about new products, the latest edging/mounting technologies as well as remote edging and electronic ordering. Essilor is also involved in a similar project for opticianry students at Seneca College of Applied Arts and Technology in Toronto."

Essilor’s overall goal is to help men and women see the world better. The company’s impressive combination of innovation, science and concern for the end customer makes this as real in 2004 as it was 150 years ago when industry combined with ingenuity to begin what we now know as the Essilor Group.