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HomemifashionThe Rise and Rise of the Dragon

The Rise and Rise of the Dragon

The rise of Chinese manufacturing continues to get stronger with some of the country’s factories matching the quality of eyewear attained in Europe at a fraction of the cost. In our recent trips to China we’ve discovered that for those who seek out the best eyewear artisans, this country is brimming with opportunity.

2012 is the Year of the Dragon – for the Chinese this indicates a year of good fortune ahead and a sign of intense power.

That’s positive news for China’s optical industry. In a country with a population fast approaching 1.5 billion people, individual wealth is on the rise and with it, demand for luxury brands. Thanks to the growth of quality manufacturing, local suppliers can now fulfill most of this demand. That wasn’t always the case.

Thanks to its twelfth Five Year Plan, Chinese manufacturing enterprises and agencies have invested in the latest and best technology and machinery. High quality materials, components and accessories have been sourced to improve quality production.

The Chinese factories… are “fundamental” to the design and technical aspects of the (Coco Song’s) frames

The country, once renowned for producing cheap, low quality products en masse, now has the capacity and expertise to achieve the same high standards delivered by manufacturers in the developed western world – only with less expensive overheads and lower labour costs. In short, they can do the same or more, for less.

That’s not to say that all factories are manufacturing to the same quality. There remain plenty of lower cost companies producing cheap look-a-likes and branding them with luxury labels. Additionally, according to the international eyewear professionals we spoke to via industry forums, some Chinese manufacturers will offer to stamp their frames with ‘Japan Made’ or whatever else you’d like.

One reputable optician said that when he went to the Hong Kong show in the hope of making his own private label, to his surprise, the frame company offered to stamp his frames with any country of origin he liked.

Others said people would be surprised to discover that there are many high profile European brands that claim to be made in Europe but are actually made in China.

But, as the conversations on the forums developed it became apparent that just because a frame makes a ‘false’ ‘Made in… ’ claim, it doesn’t mean the quality of the product is inferior. “The quality was just as good and sometimes surpassed Japanese made product. There are some amazing design houses in China, and as technology increases, the size of the world decreases, amazing product will come out of anywhere. China is the richest country in the world right now and there are reasons for that.”

Rising Costs

China may be able to manufacture quality eyewear economically right now, but it remains to be seen how long this will last.

Real wages for manufacturing workers in China have grown by 12 per cent year on year and this is adding pressure to the cost of manufacturing in the country.

Peter Ozim, a designer and founder of horn-i (pronounced Horn-Eye) a beautiful German boutique range made from Buffalo horn said Chinese manufacturing of optical goods is at a crossroads.

“China is still very cheap but China has to be careful at the moment,” he told mivision’s writer at the Shanghai International Eyewear Fair (SIOF) in at the end of February.

“If they keep putting prices up, then it is more worthwhile to produce in the eastern part of Europe – in Romania, Bulgaria, Slovenia, Serbia. If they charge 500 Euros in Eastern Europe and China is charging 400 Euros for the same thing, then where is the difference? They will lose out to Eastern Europe. China needs to be careful now to balance price with quality,” he said.

Some global companies are already moving their orders to other less-developed countries in Asia and Eastern Europe where labour costs remain low. Others have moved their manufacturing back home. In China, this is forcing manufacturers to look at ways they can reduce their costs as well – and as a result, they’re also shifting their factories to regional areas where labour and fixed costs are less than city areas.

According to Mr. Weiping Dai, the Secretary General of the China Optometric and Optical Association, it’s a move that is only impacting the lesser quality businesses. High quality manufacturing plants will “most likely remain in coastal areas where there is the greatest control,” said Mr. Dei when mivision met with him late last year.

The Stayers

Despite the gradually creeping prices, it is estimated that around 75 per cent of the world’s frame production, in full or in part, continues to be handled in China.

“We are partly manufactured in China. Who does not manufacture in China?” said Mr. Ozim, referring to Horn-i. “Manufacturing in Europe is a very, very small business now. I think there are only a few manufacturers in Germany, two or three left in France, a couple left in Italy. It’s like an iPhone
or a TV made by Samsung, it is all made in China. The Chinese people can produce very good quality.”

Kaja Romanova, the General Manager of the German brand Menrad, was at the SIOF and told mivision she believes more companies will turn to manufacturing in China in the short term. She said that although the Chinese quality is high, it must be well monitored.

Menrad (distributed in Australia by Eurostyle) is a fourth generation family company that experienced rapid expansion following its establishment in 1896. By 1909 the company had already exported its ‘pince-nez’ into countries that included France, Spain, Italy, England and Russia. To meet demand, between 1970 and 1974, Menrad established manufacturing facilities in Ireland, Switzerland and Malta, along with a distribution network of subsidiaries throughout Europe. Then in 1996, they opened a wholly owned production facility in China.

The decision, which in those days was perceived to be risky, proved worthwhile and according to Eurostyle’s Managing Director James Wright, has contributed enormously to Menrad’s success. “For Menrad, achieving the same standards of perfection and quality in their products as they achieved in their European plants is of paramount importance,” said Mr. Wright. “To do this, the manufacturing process follows strict guidelines and Menrad has comprehensive quality control processes during production.

“Some time ago, Hermann Mueller-Menrad, the Managing Director of Menrad, told me that with the right training, Chinese workers are capable of achieving workmanship equal to any thing out of Europe. Their products, particularly at the high end are evidence of this.”

Today, Menrad employs approximately 900 Chinese nationals who live together with their families, in purpose built accommodation on the factory grounds. The plant uses the same manufacturing equipment that is used by Menrad’s European plant, as well as the same European components.

THE Charmant GROUP

The Charmant Group (distributed in Australia by OP’s Optical Products) is another company that proudly manufactures high quality eyewear in its own vast factories in China as well as Japan, including licensed brands such as Elle, Esprit, Trussardi and Puma.

The company’s Chinese factories in Guangdong employ approximately 2,400 people and manufacture 3.3 million frames each year. In Japan, where Charmant’s factory employs just 450 people, the output is 850,000 units a year.

Paula Bain, Marketing Manager at OP’s said that although the really high-end frames like ‘Z’ and ‘Line-Art’ are made in Japan, the quality of the frames manufactured in the company’s Chinese factory are of the same quality standard.

Kunio Nakabayashi, Charmant’s Export Manager Asia Pacific who is based in Japan, told mivision that “facility wise, we can say there is no big difference between Japan and China. We used to relocate factory equipment from Japan to China, but recently, we have been installing new equipment into our
China factory.

“We also allow our factory in China to select and install new equipment if the product produced by the new equipment passes quality tests conducted at our Japanese factory.”

Mr. Nakabayashi said there is a difference between the knowledge and skilled level of labour in China and Japan, which can result in differences between the factories.

To overcome this, Charmant created a special division in the company’s Japan factory to provide technical guidance to the Chinese factory. Twenty Japanese engineers from the factory travel to China for short or long periods, depending on the needs, to provide technical instruction and train the labour force.

“We also send Chinese engineers to our Japan factory on a periodic basis, in order for them to go through technical training.”

Despite this focus on training, he said parts or products that require sophisticated, cutting edge technologies still need to be produced in the Japan factory.

“In our Japan factory, we have been making a great effort to improve productivity by working on developing and installing cutting edge processing techniques. Once technically realised, we will implement the techniques in our China factory. This constant effort to improve productivity plays a significant roll in adjusting costs, which are subject to be affected by the wage hike in China, as is, of course, the case in our Japan factory.”

Coco Song

In the case of Coco Song frames, the Asian influence is far-reaching. Coco Song designs its frames in Italy then exports Italian acetate to China where silk, feathers and flowers from the local area are lacquered into place on the frames. The result is a fusion of Italian style with the colour, textures and vibrancy of the orient. Even the name is Asian inspired: Coco, meaning ‘ancient’ joins the name of the Song dynasty, founder of the city of Hong Kong in 976 AD.

Francesco Ferro, head of sales for the AREA Group which owns the Coco Song brand said the Chinese factories they partner with are “fundamental” to the design and technical aspects of the brand’s frames. While most brands will select and appoint a manufacturer to meet their own quality requirements, in the case of the Coco Song, AREA Group had to prove to the manufacturer that its designs were worthy of being hand-made by the factory’s exclusive craftsmen. It took over a year for the Coco Song concepts to be refined to the point where the factory agreed to take the brand on.

“Coco Song is produced in two of the three main factories in China that actually produce brands considered ‘hand crafted’ and ‘unique’,” Mr. Ferro told mivision. “To be accepted by these producers, the designer Elisio Tessaro had to create ever more complicated and unique concepts, because these producers are extremely careful NOT to produce and create mass market frames.”

Mr. Ferro said each Coco Song piece is individually numbered and absolutely unique, even within models and colours. “Each is a masterpiece, where natural elements, ostrich feathers and flowers just to mention a couple, are “naturally” different from the ones used in the “sister” frame. Because every woman and every man wearing a Coco Song wants to be different from the person alongside them,” he said.

Asked about how quality is assured in the face of such complexity, Mr. Ferro said, that because the frames are made in China’s most exclusive factories, “the manufacturer IS himself the guarantee of quality.” He added that each piece is double checked twice by staff from two different teams at different stages of the manufacturing process.

A Great Way to Start

The Chinese manufacturing scene helped Sydney local, Nick Campbell, get his own eyewear collection up and running. “I took a couple of trips to Hong Kong and Shanghai to visit friends and while I was there I was on the normal trail, getting suits made and so on.

“Along the way I spoke to some eyewear manufacturers and that helped me make my decision – I decided to go headlong into eyewear design and manufacturing. I drew up the technical specifications for the concepts I wanted to develop and worked closely with the factory I’d chosen to refine them.

“Then I hunted down the best possible lenses, hinges and acetates – I obsessed to get the most indestructible parts. They’re all out of Asia, but they’re the best quality around – unbreakable acetates from Shenzen, lenses from a global manufacturers in Taiwan and nickel silver alloy from Shanghai.

“Technically and stylistically, the result is amazing quality – an optometrist who stocks my eyewear told me he’d had optical lenses fitted into the frames with no trouble at all,” he said.

Japanese Innovation

Contemporary Japan is renowned worldwide for quality production however that wasn’t always the case.

Back in the 40s, Japan, devastated by war, started to rebuild. Serious effort was put into improving manufacturing capabilities and the quality processes employed by the west were studiously emulated. It took 20 years to revamp the industrial sector and develop a reputation for fine craftsmanship.

The heart of Japan’s optical industry is Sabae in Fukui prefecture and it is here where much of the innovation in eyewear manufacturing takes place. In this large regional centre with a population of around 66,000 people, they make everything from frames and lenses to frame hardware and optical machinery.

In total there are around 5,000 people directly employed by the 250 optical manufacturing companies in Sabae.

The Charmant Group, which was established in Sabae in 1956, produced the first spectacle parts and introduced improvements to manufacturing technologies. The innovations continued with the development of the first titanium collection based on Pure Titanium in 1983 and then Beta Titanium in 1990 – a lighter and stronger alternative to pure titanium. In 2007 Memory Titanium was developed, with a shape memory alloy and a yield point ten times that of spring steel.

Then, as a result of an eight-year joint research project with the world authority of Metallurgical Research – Tohoku University – Charmant launched the Z-titanium range, which contains no vanadium, iron, copper or nickel.

In 2009 Charmant launched a further innovation – Excellence Titan – an extremely lightweight, highly-flexible material with a memory function that the company says makes this the most comfortable titanium material they’ve ever released.

Further research, this time with the Joining and Welding Research Institute of Osaka University and the Fukui Prefecture Industrial Support Centre, resulted in a precision laser welding technique. This technique enables extremely fine parts, less than 1mm in thickness, to be directly joined with no ‘medium’ material that could break and no damage to the metal’s original characteristics.

Charmant received the Good Design Award 2011 from the Japan Institute of Design Promotion (JDP) for optical frames and sunglasses, for the Charmant-Z collection, which is manu-factured from Excellence Titan.

Charmant Z-T ZT11255, OP’s Optical Products, (AUS) 02 9894 1000