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Tuesday / July 16.
HomemifashionMade in China

Made in China

When most of us hear something is ‘Made in China’ there is an assumption that it must be of poor quality, possibly cheap and made with inferior materials. Western companies sometimes outsource to China because it is much cheaper to produce goods there rather than at home. However, a product should not be deemed ‘inferior’ based purely upon the country where it was made.This perception is in desperate need of a facelift.

Deep in the heart of Southern China, in an elegant port city called Guangzhou, there is a street lined with factories which stretches for five kilometres. It is filled with eyewear manufacturing companies. These companies, all within shouting distance of one another, are run by European or Chinese families with a passion for high quality materials.

“I’ve been going to China for years to manufacture eyewear. All the eyewear factories are located in one area and the quality is unbelievable. Every time I go there, I see new eyewear labels coming in from Europe to set up camp in Guangzhou. This is one of the most dynamic eyewear hubs of manufacturing in the world,” said one of Australia’s leading eyewear manufacturers.

The Australian manufacturers I spoke to all raved about Guangzhou, however, they didn’t want to be named because of the perceived stigma attached to their products being made in China.

Beautiful, high quality products are not often associated with Chinese manufacturing

The term ‘Made in China’ is usually linked to cheap and shoddy merchandise and has even become something of a metaphor for poor quality. Beautiful, high quality products are not often associated with Chinese manufacturing.

Like many myths, this is one that needs to be debunked.

What Does ‘Made In China’ Mean?

In Yahoo! Answers, mivision posted a question: ‘What does this phrase mean to you? Made in China.’ The responses that come through were all very similar with people tending to rant about the shoddiness of products coming from the country. Some responses included “Junk….Sold at (U.S. retail chain) Wal-Mart…. not worth the price…” and “It means cheap, crappy stuff made in a country that can produce goods cheaper than at home through the use of cheap labour.”

It is true that Chinese manufacturers can produce goods cheaper than we can in Australia, Europe or the U.S. However, does the cost of production necessarily equate to the quality of the product? Does low cost of production mean poor quality? Does high cost equate to high quality?

Debunking the Myth

In the last 20 years, some of the most prestigious eyewear manufacturers from America, Australia and Europe have relocated to China. The more business savvy have moved to Southern China. More specifically, to Guangzhou, 120km northwest of Hong Kong, where eyewear can be manufactured for a fraction of the European price without skimping on quality.

There are an increasing number of respected Australian, European and American brands moving to Southern Chinese cities where they receive the same quality materials, workmanship and dedication to the brand as they would at home.

“Think: Made in China by European-owned factories,” says the industry expert to whom we spoke.

“These Chinese manufacturing companies are very trustworthy, many of which have been running for 20 or 30 years by the same businesspeople or their children. Here, just like in Europe, they like to keep the company in the family to ensure the same high standard is maintained.”

Eastern Promise

In the last few years, Southern China has been going through the same industrial transformation that Japan experienced in the early 60s. The quality of the manufacturing is turning around and yet people still have the idea that the quality is poor. Today however, Japan is considered the home of luxury goods and quality manufacturing.

“The quality of Chinese manufacturing companies changed when the global financial crisis (GFC) hit,” says our source. “Almost 15,000 factories have gone broke and out of business on account of the GFC. A lot of the bottom feeders shut down and the only factories that could survive were the high quality manufacturers, the ones who operate under European standards.

“As an optical manufacturer you can’t go and open a factory in Vietnam or the Philippines, as the manufacturers are all spread out over thousands of kilometres, plus there is the quality issue. However in the Guangzhou manufacturing region of China, all of the manufacturing companies are next door to one another on the same street. This process is akin to places such as Italy or Germany where you deal with one manufacturer and around them would be 30 or 40 other factories… So you can just go from one good quality factory to another to manufacture all of the parts of your glasses.

The industry expert sites the example of a factory in Guangzhou which is run by Italians who brought all of their Italian technology and experience to China. “Therefore, if I use that factory, I can buy materials of the same quality as I buy in Italy. This is exactly what you are finding in the Guangzhou manufacturing district.

“There are only a small group of factories – about 12 – that go to that level… But then there is a larger group of factories in other areas of China that you wouldn’t go to, that don’t make the same high quality eyewear”, says our source.

“What a lot of optometrists don’t know though is that you can’t just buy any old cheap frames from China. You need to know that they are using the right materials, such as Japanese pastes and German hinges.”

High Quality Processes:

Our unnamed industry expert provides an example of the quality of work in the manufacturing district of Guangzhou, saying the eyewear factories “hand mill and finish the frames by hand”. When it comes to acetate frames, the worker using the acetate has to have lots of experience because the lighter colours shrink and the dark colours don’t, which is a potential recipe for disaster. “So if you are making a pair of tortoiseshell acetate frames for instance, you are using light acetate speckled with dark acetate colours, which requires very skilled work.

“The acetate has to be dried and then when the frames are taken to the bending blocks, the factory worker heating the frames has to be a total expert to ensure there are no problems, as you cannot over or under heat the frames because they will be ruined. It is a real art form and it has become a personal skill of the factory worker in Guangzhou.”

Another example of the high quality workmanship is seen when the frame is taken to the polishing barrel. “It is important that you only use Japanese or German paste and not Chinese (even though it is cheaper). If you do not use high quality products, the polish will come off the frame within six months. It needs the depth of feeling to make it last, and that is what these Southern Chinese factories are providing.

“When people say ‘Made in China’, they don’t realise there are all different quality levels. There is ‘Madein China’ with Italian acetate, German hinges, Japanese plating, etc. Or there is ‘Made in China’ with cheap Chinese materials. In other words, you need to specify what you want and where it is coming from. You can’t just go to a Chinese manufacturer and say, “I’ll have 200 to 300 of each (of the samples they show you)”. The danger is in people buying Chinese products that look good but they don’t know if it is European owned or not.

“The most interesting aspect about the Guangzhou manufacturing district is that the quality is fantastic and the Chinese factory owners actually care about the product in all areas of the factory, like they do in Italy or Germany. They do things properly in Guangzhou. It’s about the standard, not the money. For example, if there has been a mistake or a product doesn’t look right, they will replace or repair it because they are just as concerned about quality as we are. There are totally different manufacturing standards in the southern region of China. People there understand the European raw materials and the eyewear is made by people who care.

East Meets West

There are many well known, high profile luxury brands that are designed in Europe, but manufactured in China. And whilst the manufacturing quality is of the highest levels, these European brands would prefer that it was not know that they were manufactured in China.

However, there are a few high profile premium brands that are not only manufactured in China, but are proudly promoted as being manufactured in China. It’s a selling point.

Shanghai Tang is one such luxury Chinese label that has been hugely successful overseas. Shanghai Tang Eyewear is considered to be the first luxury fashion brand from China, with the marketing focused on bringing the mystique of Chinese culture to the West. Shanghai Tang products are renowned for combining traditional Chinese design and motifs with contemporary fashion. The eyewear comes in both optical and sun and is targeted to affluent, fashion-conscious men and women, with eye-catching Chinese motifs and vibrant colours integrated into each design. The result is an elegant “East meets West”-style design.

Shaan is another eyewear company that is not backwards in coming forward about its ‘Made In China’ label. The Shaan budget range of eyewear, “Magic”, has built a reputation over many years as a reliable, cost effective, yet fashionable eyewear range. According to the company, all of the eyewear is made from monel metal and finished with a varnish coating to ensure that the colour lasts longer and has superior corrosion resistance. Further, the hinges and component parts are sourced from reliable and respected O.E.M. suppliers and we use soft clip-in silicone nose pads for added comfort. Shaan also says that all of the Magic brand eyewear is backed by the company’s two-year warranty policy

Coco Song, which is distributed in Australia by Mimo, is an optical and sunglass collection produced by Tesmo International in China. This luxury eyewear line is the result of a design collaboration between art director, Elisio Tessaro, based in Italy and Brenda Choy based in Hong Kong. Coco Song describes its eyewear as “a magic meeting between Italian design and oriental charm”.

The exclusive Coco Song eyewear collection pays homage to the golden age of Chinese culture and art. The designs include unusual use of materials such as feathers, silks, lacquers and leaves which are encased in the temples.

The company says “the magnificence of the Oriental dynasties re-lives in these creations, which have been fashioned with the attention to detail of Italian design”. Like other luxury eyewear brands, every component of the Coco Song frame is hand made.

Further debunking the misconception that China is not good at creation and innovation; one of the distinctive features of luxury Chinese eyewear labels is the celebration of oriental symbolism and colours. Coco Song eyewear uses Chinese symbols like dragons, coins and even poetry, matching these with the language of colours. For example, blue for tranquillity, red for joy and love, green for creativity, and yellow, the colour of the Emperor. Oriental influences are even embodied in Coco Song’s trademark, which stands for ‘rebirth’ and many of the symbols adorning the frames signify ‘long life’, ‘longevity’ and ‘double luck’.