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HomemilensesVarilux: The Evolution of Innovation

Varilux: The Evolution of Innovation

The world’s first progressive lens, the Varilux product, was launched nearly 50 years ago and today, it remains the number one progressive lens brand prescribed by practitioners around the world.

It was not a need, but sheer determination and believing that something deemed impossible was indeed possible, that brought the world’s first progressive lens into being. The term Varilux means ‘variable light’, named to demonstrate the progressive, or variable, power of the lens. Varilux is the number one progressive lens brand prescribed by practitioners around the world and in fact, every minute, there are 20 new Varilux wearers worldwide!

Since Varilux 1 was launched in 1959, the Varilux brand has grown from an innovative prototype into a collection of progressives offering a lens for every patient, frame choice, lifestyle and budget. Varilux offers both prescribers and wearers products that are backed by physiological and technological research, a proud history of innovation and an unblemished reputation.

Today, the Varilux portfolio in Australia includes the top of the range product Varilux Ipseo, the outstandingly successful Varilux Physio and Varilux Physio 360 and the well known Varilux Comfort and Varilux Ellipse.

… and in fact, every minute, there are 20 new Varilux wearers worldwide!

Optometrists and dispensers can offer all their patients a Varilux lens from this diverse range and in a comprehensive variety of materials and coatings, secure in the knowledge that whichever one is chosen it will be an investment in visual performance for their patients. Essilor’s most sold progressive lens, Varilux Physio 360, alone is available in six materials, with a choice of three coatings and like all Essilor products also comes with Transitions VI.

A Ripping Yarn

A lens is an unlikely protagonist for a story but the tale of how the French optical company’s Varilux lens eventually prevailed against fierce opposition from a conservative profession is compelling. This is a tale to rival anything Hollywood has produced. An epic of unwavering faith and tenacity, professional jealousy, trial and error, industrial espionage as well as scientific and engineering genius.

In 1948, following his French military service, a 22 year-old Bernard Maitenaz was employed by Société des Lunetieres (also called Essel, which became half of Essilor). His grandfather had made his career there and his father was then head of the optics department at company headquarters at rue Pastourelle in Paris. The young Maitenaz was entrusted with a brief to study the different stages in the process of surfacing glass lenses and to improve the quality as well as speed of production in the post-war industrialised world. By day he worked on this brief but by night he had a secret project – to invent a multi-purpose lens for that group of people we know in the optometry world as presbyopes.

The interesting thing is that initially he didn’t know how to do it or if it was even possible but his belief in the project overcame the doubts and the result speaks for itself.

Maitenaz was to revolutionise the industry and the way presbyopic people were able to function visually and the successors of his original Varilux progressive have kept Essilor at the forefront of their field globally. Since 1959 Essilor has sold over 400 million Varilux lenses world-wide.

Back to the Future

Maitenaz had a modern approach to the wearing of lenses, one that until then had not really been of importance to manufacturers. Previously the user and their particular habits didn’t figure in how the end product functioned for them in terms of appearance and lifestyle, it was merely their prescription that dictated the lens they wore. Even now other progressive lens makers have essentially a technological approach to lens design whereas Varilux integrates human factors with technology. This was Maitenaz’s primary motivation for its invention and remains the ‘raison d’etre’ for Essilor’s current stable of Varilux lenses.

The personalisation of progressive lenses was born in 2002 with the introduction of Varilux Ipseo. An optometrist will typically prescribe lenses according to three criteria: the corrective power for vision (ametropia), the value of the astigmatism and its axis, and the addition (degree of presbyopia).

Essilor’s research department had been conducting studies with the University of Montreal, which concluded that each person has a very different visual motor behaviour. Varilux Ipseo was the first progressive to take account the new parameter, ‘the head/eye coefficient’, the ratio of the patient’s head and eye movement. The dispensing of this lens requires the patented Visual Print System (VPS) which tests the natural head/eye ratio.

The People Decide

From the beginning of the 1980s extensive research has been conducted by Essilor on the physiology of wearers. It has lead to vast improvements in progressive lenses via Essilor’s well-proven process: The Dioptric Loop. This five-step method ensures visual performance for the wearer, thanks notably to the clinical trial step.

Physiologic characteristics, posture, eye movement, acuity, sensitivity to blur and other intrinsic traits are measured. Complex calculations are performed to manipulate the design to enhance or reduce the impact of these characteristics prior to developing new prototypes. Once the prototypes are measured to ensure they match the computed surfaces, they are tested in stringent double-blind clinical trials to provide actual wearer evaluation.

Maitenaz pioneered these clinical trials in a cruder form by insisting that each prototype in the making of the first Varilux was tested on wearers and he would include their feedback in his research. A key aspect in making a lens that was initially “strange” for the wearer was the understanding that the brain is responsible for interpreting images and vision is not just the function of the eye alone. The lenses were made for each individual eye, left and right, and Maitenaz knew that, in time, the wearer’s brain would adjust to the ‘side effects’ of the lens and he sought to educate both prescribers and wearers to that effect. This is common practice today.

History of Firsts

For over half a century Varilux has been first in its field:

  • Varilux: the first progressive
  • Varilux II: the first to use non-spherical surfaces derived from conic sections
  • Varilux Panamic: the first lens to improve peripheral and dynamic vision by accounting for the origins of ‘swim’
  • Varilux Ipseo: the first progressive personalised to the wearer’s eye and head movements.

Varilux Physio, introduced in 2006 was another first for Essilor, incorporating W.A.V.E. Technology (Wavefront Advanced Vision Enhancement). Adapted from wavefront analysis used in deep space astronomy, W.A.V.E. Technology measures and controls higher order aberrations in the progressive design. Until now even the best progressives induced higher order aberrations that deformed the wavefront passing thorough the lens affecting visual acuity and contrast sensitivity. With W.A.V.E Technology the wavefront is analysed and enhanced. The first Varilux lens was designed with a short corridor, which contributed to peripheral deformations and swim. Utilising differential calculus researchers “smoothed” the surface rates of change dramatically reducing peripheral deformations and swim, first in Varilux Comfort and then Panamic.

The Varilux Physio and Physio 360 progressive designs took this a step further by addressing higher order aberrations, particularly coma, enhancing peripheral clarity, improving contrast sensitivity and giving better acuity in all fields of vision.
Essilor’s design and technology innovations can be measured by Varilux’s history of detecting unmet needs (which was exactly what Bernard Maitenaz did), and creating a solution.

This is not the same as creating a market for a product, it is not even just being
at the cutting edge of technological advances, it is keeping up with the science of how people see and how it is applied in everyday life.

The Research Continues

Essilor’s research department employs 450 people and nearly 5 per cent of turnover is reinvested into continuing Maitenaz’s tradition of innovation. Today Varilux remains the leader in progressive lenses and is the company’s best known brand.

Most Australian optometrists won’t even remember a time when they couldn’t offer their presbyopic patients a progressive lens. They have become an essential aspect of the armamentarium treating and alleviating the effects of aging on sight. Varilux inverts the maxim that ‘seeing is believing’.

Varilux will celebrate 50 years of innovation next year. We can expect the product to continue to be at the forefront of lens technology as researchers look for ways to innovate materials, designs and coatings.

Bernard Maitenaz knew that to make his idea a reality, his belief would see it happen. His faith has been rewarded as the story he started continues today.

Laura Macfarlane is a professional journalist and member of the Australasian Medical Writers Association. Laura specialises in healthcare communication and consults for the ophthalmic and medical device industries.