Essilor is celebrating the 50th birthday of the invention of the world’s most popular progressive lens, Varilux. The Varilux brand of lenses is unquestionably the world’s most popular ophthalmic lens.
It’s almost inconceivable to think that there is one new Varilux wearer every four seconds1. There are very few brands in the world with such an impact on the consumer.
The first generation of the Varilux lens was born in 1959 from the idea of Bernard Maitenaz, a French optical engineer trained at Arts et Métiers (the National Institute of Arts and Trades) and the École Supérieure d’Optique. His aim was to improve visual aids for presbyopes.
“A decade later, after the ‘progressive’ concept had been accepted, it became possible to adopt an entirely aspherical, softer progressive surface with the Varilux 2, which was launched in 1972 and enjoyed immediate success. “
Maitenaz wanted to create a lens to replace bifocals, and half eyes, which broke up the visual field. Varilux, meaning, variable light, was named by Maitenaz to demonstrate the progressive power of his invention.
The brand is celebrating its 50th birthday this year and has some remarkable achievements to its credit, including the launch of the very first progressive lens in 1959 designed by Bernard Maitenaz.
The Years Prior to Varilux
In the 1950s, correcting presbyopes involved prescribing reading glasses and some half-eye spectacles. As for ametropes on their way towards presbyopia, they were often forced to juggle with two pairs of glasses. The most well-informed or most demanding were using bifocal lenses and sometimes even triple focus lenses.
For many spectacle wearers, all these methods were a constant reminder of the ageing process, something the presbyopes of the time wouldn’t have been particularly thrilled about.
The Genius of Bernard Maitenaz
Bernard Maitenaz was a young engineer who believed the idea of a bifocal lens was completely out of date. He believed a lens had to have the strength to vary continuously, not have a break-line, as was the case with the bifocal.
In 1951, Maitenaz was working alone at home every evening doing his calculations – well before the advent of computers. His calculations were done by hand and would take days compared to the few minutes on a calculator today.
In the 1950s very few people knew about Maitenaz’s project, even within the company itself. The inventor’s determination and conviction started to spread. Everything had to start from scratch. He had to invent every single step of the process to achieve the progressive lens surface, from calculations through to machines, as well as measuring, engraving and special marking instruments.
It’s important to note that, at the time, eye care professionals were quite happy using the lenses they were using. They didn’t think they had a need for a progressive lens, or at least that’s what they thought at the time. As for the general public, they had accepted seeing the world through bifocals and trifocals, as well as accepting that once they hit 45, they would now have a permanent reminder of their presbyopia … and could no longer hide their age!
Maitenaz asked his father to be his first test case. Despite several difficulties, the latter encouraged his son to continue his work – although he was a long way off the Varilux lens of 1959. In July 1959, Essel, well before it became Essilor, launched the first Varilux lens in Paris but it was not long before the criticisms started to pour in.
As is the case with every major invention, the new lens received a lot of criticism. Imagine what must have been said about inventions such as the railway which, because of its speed it was feared at the time, was going to kill travellers, or think of the television which people feared was going to make everyone go blind.
Reaction from Professionals
All lens manufacturers of the time knew, of course, that they must demolish this concept, the appearance of highly aberrant zones in an ophthalmic lens was unacceptable and they thought it would be easy to attack the lens from this angle.
Opticians rapidly divided into two categories: those who loved the lens and those who were sceptical. British optometrists were the first to experiment with the lens in 1961 and despite the high degree of penetration of bifocal lenses due to the National Health Service; Varilux became well-established there in less than 15 years. In America, optometrists took until the 1970s to truly embrace this movement.
Varilux was launched throughout Europe between 1960 and 1972. A similar technique was used each time – begin by convincing the eye care professionals, then the general public would be receptive to this new concept.
The customer found the lenses more efficient with continuity of vision through to infinity at their own working distance. The lens was also much more attractive, an important fact which helped to preserve the customers ego; an aspect that was not one of their primary concerns and had often been neglected by the eye care professional.
The Second Generation: Varilux 2
In order to remain close to bifocal lenses, the first Varilux lens had a spherical distance vision area, which led to lateral zones that were often difficult for the wearer to adapt to quickly.
A decade later, after the ‘progressive’ concept had been accepted, it became possible to adopt an entirely aspherical, softer progressive surface with the Varilux 2, which was launched in 1972 and enjoyed immediate success. Perfect and much quicker calculation methods plus a study of the complete visual system, meant that more complex surfaces could be accessed, tested and improved.
Essilor became unique by the very fact that this wonderful product made all the difference. Moreover, in the ensuing years, every manufacturer began to launch progressive lenses, after having criticised them so strongly.
With modern work methods: rapid calculations, digital surfacing, personalisation of calculations, virtual tests and live testing both in-house and externally, it would have become a lot easier to create the succession of Varilux generations.
As long as spectacles are needed to see at every distance, the long life of Varilux is assured. Also, improvements are constantly being made, which facilitates the work of the professionals and ensures even more adaptation for patients.
The conviction and determination of Bernard Maitenaz and of all the staff who have succeeded him over for the past fifty years mean that there are now hundreds of millions of presbyopes worldwide who can live better with their presbyopia.
This article is based on an article written by Marc Alexandre, the director of publication, Points de Vue, the International Review of ophthalmic optics (a publication of Essilor International), Spring 2009, biannual.
1. Based on Essilor’s international sales figures for Varilux.