Maison Bonnet, Paris’ best kept secret

Hugo JACOMET

Maison Bonnet, Paris’ best kept secret

The writing of my book “The Parisian Gentleman”, to be published next year at Thames & Hudson, created the need to dig deep into the history of some fairly confidential houses, including a few that I knew hardly anything about. During the process, little did I know that delving into the world of Maison Bonnet would prove to be one of my most meaningful endeavors of the year.

Nestled at the back of an enchanted dead end street in the first arrondissement of Paris, Bonnet is the only glassmaker in the world that is allowed to continue making bespoke glasses from tortoise shell, thanks to a stock they acquired before the Washington Convention at the end of the seventies, which explicitly forbids the trade of this noble material.

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However, Maison Bonnet’s expertise goes far beyond that of the masterful handling of tortoise shell.

Bonnet’s approach to glassmaking (as eyewear is an integral, yet overlooked component of personal style) can be likened to the work of a master tailor and a bespoke bootmaker. In fact, Bonnet’s approach to selecting and fitting a client with eyeglasses is without equivalence in the world of highend eyewear–a world still vastly dominated by overpriced products from luxury brands that view eyewear marketing as a source of easy profit.

Up until the 1980’s, the glass-making market was still largely considered almost strictly medical, that is of course, until a marketing tsunami came crashing down at the end of the decade with the intrusion of hundreds of brands slapping ridiculously oversized logos onto the branches of their tacky spectacles (incidentally, a similar phenomenon of gaudiness took place in the perfume industry at about the same time). This created a shockwave in the artisanal glass maker market that resulted in many ateliers closing their doors forever.

Fortunately, Bonnet survived the industry catastrophe, thanks to Christian Bonnet’s iron will not to let his company be dragged down along with the rest of the traditional market – which was an especially tall order since at the time, industry production was moving away from France in favor of other countries and continents. Thus, in a period where everyone was downgrading quality, Christian decided to up the ante and craft even more sophisticated spectacles.

The Maison Bonnet was formally established in 1950 by Robert Bonnet, son of Alfred Bonnet, himself a glassmaker who specialized in gold and tortoise shell during the 1930’s. Today, the house is helmed by the next two generations of Bonnet : Christian, one of the last living masters in the handling of tortoise shell and head of the main atelier, as well as the bona fide soul of the house—and his two sons Frank and Steven, who work at the gorgeous Bonnet boutique-atelier hidden away at 5 rue des Petits Champs in Paris. Bonnet is comprised of four generations of glassmakers, with the business helm being passed down from father to son(s).

Stepping into the Bonnet shop is like stepping into the workshop of your favorite bespoke tailor or bootmaker.

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But instead of fabric swatches or leather samples, here you’ll find tortoise shell swatches, a stunning collection of buffalo horn, and every shade of cellulose acetate that may exist under the sun.

Even the crafting process can be compared to that of a tailor or bootmaker. The fitting process begins with a conversation about personal lifestyle and taste preferences, followed by taking measurements (some of which you may never have considered existed), followed by a fitting session with prototypes. Next, extensive reflection is given to frame color selection and material finish. Then, another fitting is performed and adjustments are made along with the final finishing touches. A few weeks after, the Bonnet eyeglasses will be ready for a final check and to at last…take home.  Nothing here is left to chance : a true Bespoke experience from beginning to end.

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Franck and Steven Bonnet are most charming fellows. Upon meeting Franck, I was instantly reminded of the likes of Pierre Corthay and Lorenzo Cifonelli. Franck is passionate about his craft and a tireless designer, a virtuoso even, a specialist of how light and transparency interplay with the face. At Bonnet, light, reflection, and facets are a key consideration in fitting a client with eyeglasses. This “science of light” is close to Alan Flusser’s theories – which state that the ultimate goal of dressing well is to draw the maximum attention to one’s face.

Steven, who is in charge of the acetate production, is known for having an eye for design and many clients seek his help to decide which Bonnet creation will best complement the shape and details of the face.

At Bonnet, you’ll find no ready-to-wear. Everything here is made to measure. And the owners are adamant : according to them, it is impossible to find a pair of ready-to-wear spectacles perfectly adapted to one’s face with its numerous variables and particularities, which by nature are unique to each individual. The temporal lobe has to be taken into account, as well as the pupil distance and the angle of the nose. Roughly 12 different measurements have to be recorded in order to produce a properly fitted pair. As Frank Bonnet puts it jokingly, the right pair gives you HD vision.

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The wealthier among you will most likely be interested in the precious tortoise shell, a truly stunning raw material that is pretty much impossible to find nowadays. The tortoise shell is made of keratin, an organic material also contained in human hair, that adapts to body temperature, and is capable of auto-grafting when worked with a live flame. Tortoise shell allows for the making of the most sophisticated glasses that will last a lifetime — true works of art, but unfortunately, their stratospheric prices due to a dying stock puts them out of reach of most customers.

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Buffalo horn is another interesting option. It is a noble material as well, and the stock is steady (unlike tortoise shell), making it a more affordable alternative–even if still pricey.

For the others, yours truly included, cellulose acetate is the next best thing. It’s an organic plastic material made from textile fibers (cellulose acetate is also known as ‘cotton cellulose’) that offers almost limitless freedom in terms of colors, shades and nuances.

The inclusion of this material was Frank Bonnet’s 2009 masterstroke, as it allowed the company, who previously worked strictly with noble materials, to broaden its clientele by putting Bonnet’s wonderful products and savoir-faire within the reach of a much wider audience.

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No matter the material chosen, the techniques used for the shaping and finishing the product are precisely the same – every single model is made by hand, which includes the stunningly meticulous process of faceting and polishing.

A pair of Bonnet in acetate cellulose costs less than 1000 euros (entry price) – which puts bespoke eyeglasses within the reach of many wallets–a truly amazing artisanal alternative to ‘luxury eyeglasses’, which astoundingly, can be priced up to three times the cost of a pair of Bonnet bespoke in acetate.

On the clinical side, Miss Cécile Bon, a highly qualified optometrist, is on staff at the Paris store to cover the medical side of the process, ensuring that the optical experience remains ultra-professional and smooth.

Maison Bonnet is a national treasure, still confidential, yet fully worthy of our attention based on the extreme quality and beauty of their products, and for the genuine and friendly people that make every visit to this discreet store a refined pleasure.

Visits are by appointment only, so securing a place on the calendar is the first step to owning a pair of Bonnet eyeglasses.

A superb house indeed, with a radiant future ahead.

Let there be light !

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Website : http://www.maisonbonnet.com

Contact : maisonbonnet@gmail.com

Boutique / Atelier : Passage des Deux Pavillons, 5 rue des Petits Champs, 75001 Paris. Tél : +33 1 42 96 46 35.