this may be THE most exciting boutique opening of the year 2018 in London : Maison Bonnet, the iconic bespoke eyewear maker who dressed the faces of the likes of Yves Saint Laurent, Jackie Kennedy, Le Corbusier or Jacques Chirac is entering the London Mayfair stage with a delicious venue located 7 Stafford Street.
Writing that Maison Bonnet is a peerless workshop on the planet is a euphemism.
And to celebrate this opening of which we are, at PG, very proud, we have the pleasure to offer you the complete chapter dedicated to Maison Bonnet as printed in my first book (The Parisian Gentleman) which, by the way, has just been re-released in a brand new compact hardback second edition (as you can see HERE or HERE). Let there be light !
“Maison Bonnet in Paris and now in London is the one of the very last spectacle makers in the world producing handcrafted turtle shell bespoke glasses.
The trade of this fascinating material has been strictly regulated since the 1973 Washington Convention and it is now impossible to find turtle shell unless the stock was obtained before that date. Very few companies possess such a rare treasure and have been allowed by the local authorities to market it.
Christian Bonnet being one of the last turtle shell specialists working in the world, this makes the Maison Bonnet a peerless workshop on the planet.
And yet, Bonnet’s unique mastery of turtle shell is only one side of their uniqueness. Their true originality lies in their approach of eyewear as part of a gentleman’s (or lady’s) personal style. This approach is thus very similar to that of a bespoke tailor or shoemaker.
Whereas “bespoke” has become the sanctified buzzword of the merchandising gods through the agency of marketing managers who only have a very loose understanding of what it truly means, it is quite refreshing to chance upon a company that satisfies all the expectations of connoisseurs in the field of real bespoke service—utmost customization, unique craftsmanship, luxury materials (buffalo horn and turtle shell) and astonishingly beautiful hand-crafted goods.
When I visited the Bonnet workshop for the first time for the purpose of my book The Parisian Gentleman I did not really know what to expect as I still had a very old-fashioned vision of turtle shell which reminded me of my grand-father’s lovely combs. I could not see the difference between a spectacle-maker and your run-of-the-mill optician. Some of them may claim to be ‘visagistes’ (beauty customising specialists) and sell ‘brand’ glasses or even worse ‘designers’ spectacles at ridiculous prices.
I did not grasp that while the optician will talk about sight correction and frames, an eyewear expert like Bonnet devote his care to letting the light work its magic.
Not really the same world.
Franck Bonnet is a charming and passionate middle-aged man. He’s got a little obsession, though—when he meets someone for the first time, he can’t help but visualize in his mind’s eye what kind of glasses would look best on you.
It’s become second nature for him, a sort of uncontrollable impulse that make him immediately estimate what your temporal space is and discuss the contrasts of your face or the nature of your nose bridge.
I’ve seen people like that before. For instance my tailor Lorenzo Cifonelli seems affected by the same instinct, screwing up his eyes to check the technical details of your suit whenever you come across him, no matter what the circumstances are. The analogy could continue. When I stepped inside Bonnet’s cosy boutique-cum-workshop located in a cute dead-end street near the Palais-Royal, I experienced the same atmosphere that I feel at my tailor’s of my shoemaker’s.
The colour charts display cellulose acetate, horn and turtle shell and not leather or fabrics but the bespoke spirit is present in every detail—measurements of the face, discussions about one’s sartorial preferences and life style, about the choice of materials and shapes, about prototyping and fittings.
At Bonnet’s, there is simply no ready-to-wear, not even sunglasses. The hundreds of models on display in the small showroom where the lights are kept low are only suggestions designed to help the customers devise models that will suit their faces with the assistance of the eyewear specialist.
This is about real bespoke. Handcrafted glasses, one single piece at a time.
The last of the Mohicans
Bonnet is very much the Charvet of luxury eyewear, a sort of economic aberration and industrial anomaly.
Before the early 80s’, the market for glasses was still very much a ‘medical’ specialty and the sunglasses market was still in its infancy. Traditional manufactures were still dominant, especially those in Morez, a tiny town in the mountains of Jura, the capital city of French spectacle-makers.
In the mid-80s’, logos took over the planet and eyewear was touched by this global phenomenon. Dozens and soon hundreds of brands hailing from the worlds of fashion, sports or jewellery started producing glasses, flooding the market with poor quality products adorned with gaudy and splashy logos.
Most traditional makers did not survive the new trends. They closed shop one after the other.
Faced with a difficult situation and the rise of mass marketing in the discreet world of traditional spectacle makers, Christian Bonnet had just taken over the company from his father in 1980 and decided he would stand his ground.
He remained committed to the idea that there was still room for quality spectacles in the prevailing morass of logos. Building on his unique craftsmanship in luxury materials, he decided to keep calm and carry on making the most beautiful glasses in the world. This strategy enabled Bonnet to keep their head above the water while an overwhelming wave of marketing aggression was destroying the whole profession.
This bold manner of taking charge of things is not without reminding me of the way Denis Colban made the same kind of forward-looking move in the 70s’ and 80s’ at Charvet’s. Like Christian Bonnet, Colban chose to resist the siren call of ready-to-wear and mass-marketing, rather preferring to offer exceptional products, raising the bar rather than levelling down.
Thirty-five years on, the world of men’s style is rediscovering the virtues of craftsmanship. More and more gentlemen want to free themselves from mass-marketed logo-stamped products and turn to traditional crafts. It seems that Christian Bonnet was right after all. Bonnet is now enjoying international praise and attention and their products are admired everywhere for their sheer unswerving excellence.
Down through the years
The Bonnet business has been handed down from father to son for four generations. Their story started out in the 30s’.
Alfred Bonnet was a spectacle maker who specialised in gold and turtle shell in a workshop located in Morez, in Jura, in the east of France. His son, Robert, followed the steps of his father and plied the same trade in two famous companies, Achard then Boidot where he became head of the manufacture until 1950.
That year he founded his own company, specialising in bespoke eyewear and luxury materials, including the turtle shell that would become the house specialty.
His enterprise was met with tremendous success as high society was bewitched by Robert Bonnet’s precious creations. Crowned heads, writers, politicians, businessmen and artists quickly made his name in the small world of luxury eyewear.
His son Christian received an early training in the difficult and challenging art of bespoke turtle shell spectacles. This disciplined profession became his passion. As early as 14 he studied at the Pasteur optical school and later was blessed with the opportunity of working with the last great masters of turtle shell, Jacques Rameau and François Mandon, who passed on secular skills and tools as well as shell stocks. A most precious legacy.
In 1980 he took over the family business and managed with great sense of purpose to keep the company’s body and soul together while the whole field was going through a rough phase.
The workshop located in a small Castle from the 17th century in Bourgogne where Christian Bonnet operates is still the heart of the company as it is the repository of a unique craft. He was even awarded the title of ‘Maître d’Art’ by the ministry of culture in 2000.
Franck Bonnet, Christian’s son, followed suit and was enrolled as soon as he was 18. His younger brothers Steven and John recently joined in as well.
It was Franck’s impulse that gave a boost to the business and brought it out of its underground position into the limelight.
Since the stock of turtle shell is inexorably dwindling down with absolutely no way of renewing it, Franck Bonnet decided in 2009 to apply the company’s craft to new materials such as water buffalo’s or ram’s horn and, more recently, cellulose acetate which enables total freedom in terms of colours.
Far from forsaking the family’s craft, he pursued it, managing to bring bespoke glasses to a greater number of customers and thus revealing the brand to the world.
Working with more affordable materials implied new possibilities for the future but it was done in accordance with the spirit and methods of Bonnet. Even with a more common material, between six and thirty hours are still necessary to produce a pair of spectacles by hand. The shaping and polishing require the same care, whether the material is acetate, horn or shell.
The Bonnet touch—letting the light through
Choosing a pair of glasses is a complicated and far from intuitive process. It is difficult to make the right choice alone without running the risk of a big mistake.
Glasses have also become more than just a medical device. It is now fully regarded as en element of style for women or men, expressing one’s vision of one’s self.
In his seminal Dressing the Man, published in 2002, the great theoretician of contemporary men’s style Alan Flusser gave a masterful demonstration of a core idea: if one’s style is carefully thought through, the ultimate goal is to set off one’s face and certainly not your suit or shoes, however perfect they may be.
Another way to say it, in imitation of George Brummell, is to say that it’s the man who should receive all the attention, not the clothes. In his excellent treatise, Flusser also broached a topic rarely discussed by so-called experts: the relationship between one’s complexion and the colour of one’s clothes, and the ensuing contrast. He showed with flamboyant clarity that only certain colours or hues can really highlight certain types of complexion. It is thus capital for a man, or a woman, to know about those colours so as to channel as much light as possible towards one’s face.
This theory is given a new dimension at Bonnet’s. Developing Flusser’s hunch Bonnet’s approach aims at letting the light through the frame whose facets need to be carefully shaped and polished with that goal in mind.
Taming the light is at the heart of Bonnet’s approach modus operandi. The result is stunning as I can testify for witnessing extraordinary results in the beautiful boutiques in Paris and today, London.
‘Blessed are the crackpots for they let the light through’ as the great French screenwriter Michel Audiard said.
I don’t know if this is a crackpot family.
What I do know is that Christian, Franck, Steven and John Bonnet really shine with all the beautiful light they create.
(EDIT September 2018)
Limited edition “ready-to-fit” collections
The philosophy of Bonnet has always been to stay true to its roots while adapting to the “air du temps”.
It is thanks to this philosophy that Maison Bonnet has been able to build a solid bridge between centennial artisanal gestures and the high technology of modern optometry. It’s also thanks to this philosophy that the House has been able to transfer the precious and rare gestures of working with Tortoise shell to other (more affordable) materials like Buffalo Horns or Cotton Acetate.
It is thus with the same philosophy and vision that in order to celebrate the opening of its boutique / atelier in London Mayfair, and to meet the ever- growing demand for its creations, that Maison Bonnet will launch an alternative way to live the Bonnet experience : the “ready-to-fit”’ spectacles.
A ready-to-fit pair of Bonnet glasses is NOT ready-to-wear. This idea of ready-to-wear is not in the DNA of the House. A “ready-to-fit” frame is hand-made like every other Bonnet glasses, but it has been produced in several “sizes” and colors. If you find a pair of “ready-to-fit” that you like in Paris or London and that can adapt to your face, then you’ll have to experience a “fitting” session with an artisan (one hour minimum) in order to ensure optimal comfort and quality of vision.
Each year, 20 “ready-to-fit” models will be available in 20 exemplaries. Not one more.
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To make an appointment with Maison Bonnet please send an email to :
email@example.com (for London).
firstname.lastname@example.org (for Paris).
New boutique in London : 7 Stafford Street, Mayfair, London W1S 4RT
T : +44 (0)203 44 555 38
New (magnificent) website : Maison Bonnet