Ok, so I searched through the forums and found a couple short-lived attempts at establishing a sunglass-fi here. What I want to do is start something different. This thread will be more about the accumulation of information on sunglasses, rather than a list of what people have with no impressions given. Over the years, I've tried quite a few sunglasses, since I live in Orange County where the sun is always strong. The more I've learned, the more I've been surprised at the common misconceptions about sunglasses, and what constitutes a quality pair. Since this is one of my collections that there is no dedicated forum for, I've decided that this might be a good place to start pooling information for other consumers who want to make educated purchases. I've made quite a few mistakes and picked up a good deal of information, so I'll start dividing up and posting what I've learned.
Sunglass-Fi, The Optics Info Thread
The first thing you should know about sunglasses is how the business is dominated by a select few. Two Italian companies, Luxottica and Safilo, own most of the market. Between them, they own brands like Ray-Ban, Revo, Persol, Smith, Carrera, Arnette, and many others. Furthermore, they own most of the retail stores for sunglasses, including Sunglass Hut, Lens Crafters, Solstice, Pearle Vision, and more. Luxottica even owns the second largest eyecare insurance company. Oakley had a pricing dispute with Luxottica at one point, to which Luxottica reacted by pulling all of Oakley's products from their stores. Oakley's stock dropped, and they were bought by Luxottica. Over the years, the two companies have used their power to choke out competition and build a kind of shared monopoly, driving prices up and quality down.
"Fashion" brands are an even worse buy. Brands like Chanel, Gucci, Armani, Prada, Dolce and Gabbana, Brooks Brothers, and Tiffany don't actually have anything to do with the sunglasses sold under their name. They contract out all the design and manufacturing work to one of these two conglomerates, and take a cut for licensing their name. The quality of these sunglasses is no better than that of Luxottica's more mainstream brands, despite the higher price.
All this may be a bit depressing, but there is hope. First of all, many Luxottica and Safilo products are not terrible, although better options for the money exist. Second, there are a good number of companies independent from Luxottica and Safilo that offer a better product for the price, or a better product period. Some good independent companies are:
American Optical, Barton Perreira, Chrome Hearts, Costa Del Mar, Cutler and Gross, Dillon Optics, Freudenhaus, Gold and Wood, IC! Berlin, Kaenon, L.G.R., Lindberg, Matsuda, Maui Jim, Mykita, Morgenthal Frederics, Oliver Goldsmith, Randolph Engineering, Salt Optics, Serengeti, Tom Davies, Warby Parker
Alpina, ESS, Revision, Rudy Project, Wiley X
Edited by Tsujigiri - 5/11/13 at 10:21pm
One of the most important things to consider when selecting a quality pair of sunglasses is the materials. Both the frame and lens materials play a significant role in how the product will perform. There are four main materials used in the lenses of sunglasses. These are:
CR-39. This is the standard plastic lens. It is not very impact resistant, but it is close to the clarity of glass, and has the least chromatic abberation of the most popular lens materials. It can be tinted easily, and coated with a hard shell that resists scratches.
Polycarbonate. This is a plastic with much higher strength that will resist impacts, but that's all that it's good for. It has the worst clarity, chromatic abberation, tintability, and scratch resistance of the main lens materials. If you aren't playing sports and don't need impact protection, polycarbonate is not your best choice.
Glass. Glass is much heavier than any of the other options, but many find the weight to be well worth it. While it doesn't have any impact protection, it does have the best clarity and very low chromatic abberation. My favorite feature of glass, though, is its scratch resistance.
Trivex. Rudy Project calls their Trivex Impact-X and offers it on some models. Kaenon also uses a similar material. This newer plastic is even stronger and more impact resistant than polycarbonate, but is also clearer and has less chromatic abberation. In fact, it is better than polycarbonate in every way. However, it is more expensive, which is why companies that tend to cut corners when it comes to optics (like Oakley) don't use it.
For the frames, there are also a few common materials. Many sports sunglasses have injection-molded plastic frames, but your standards should be higher for normal sunglasses. Sports sunglasses are just that; sunglasses for sports. If you aren't using your sunglasses for sports and don't need the impact protection, regular sunglasses will offer you better quality, longevity, aesthetics, and functionality. For plastic frames, the good ones are made using cellulose acetate with wire cores in the temples. This material is light but substantial, and can be bent to fit the user's face better. Generally, it's better to avoid injection-molded frames or frames made of cheaper plastic. You can usually tell if a frame has been injection molded by looking for mold lines left in the product, but manufacturers can be sneaky sometimes. The Ray-Ban Wayfarers, for instance, used to be made of acetate, but are now made with injection molded plastic with a wire core, so it looks like it's constructed like the older version. Metal frames are also available, usually in stainless steel or titanium. Cheaper frames might use Monel. Titanium is not always better and not always lighter; a lot depends on the design of the frame.
Edited by Tsujigiri - 5/12/13 at 1:23am
There are a few things to look for that indicate quality in the construction of sunglasses. Unfortunately, many of the mainstream Luxottica companies like Ray-Ban do poorly with respect to this. Here are a few things I look for, in no particular order:
1. Lens setting. Make sure the lenses are set into the frames properly, and do not pop out of their seating at all.
2. Frame warping. Many companies produce sunglasses with this problem. Lay the glasses on a flat surface with the arms folded out fully. The temples should both touch the surface at the ends, and the frame should not be warped so that one arm is higher than the other.
3. Hinges. The hinges should not be far looser on one side than the other, to the point of being unfixable. They should also not wobbly significantly. For plastic frames, 5 or 7 barrel hinges are nice. The arms and front of the frame should also meet flush with each other with the arms fully out, and not have a large air gap. Also, hinges that are pinned through the frame on plastic frames show higher craftsmanship and skill than hinges that are just set into the acetate with heat.
4. Solder points. For wire-framed sunglasses, the solder points are a significant indicator of quality. On pairs that do not exhibit very good quality, the solder joints are often uneven or sloppy. A high quality frame will have uniform soldering, with only enough solder used to make the weld, no more and no less.
Summer's coming around now, so I think I'll post some interesting examples from my collection that other Head-fiers will hopefully appreciate.
First up, IC! Berlin. They're a small company that makes all their frames in their Berlin workshop rather than outsourcing them elsewhere. They make their frames out of .5mm thick sheetmetal, which is both lightweight and flexible (Mine are lighter than my titanium frames). The interesting thing about their construction, though, is that they have no solder points to break and the hinges have no screws to fall out. Since the frames bend rather than break, they're very durable. Also, the hinges can be taken apart and the lenses removed without tools.
My Wladimir P's:
Promo video showing the flexibility of the frames:
Mykita is a similar company that also makes sheetmetal sunglasses with screwless hinges in Berlin. They were founded by some former IC! Berlin employees who had an idea for a different hinge design. The Mykita hinge locks open and closed, so they don't spring open the way the IC! Berlin hinge does (meaning that they'll stay put if you clip your sunglasses onto your shirt). However, you can't disassemble the Mykita hinge and remove the lenses without tools. Mykita uses Zeiss lenses that have good optics, and the antireflective coatings are matched to the lens color (brown lenses have brown AR coatings instead of the usual purple). The rubber pads are a little softer and grippier than the ones used by IC! Berlin, and Mykitas come with better cases. It's still a tossup for me as to which one I like better, though.
My Mykita Pierce's:
One area where Mykita does best IC! Berlin, though, is in their acetate sunglasses. Mykita actually bought up a German acetate manufacturer that was going out of business due to competition from abroad, so they would have their own acetate supplier. They also redesigned their screwless hinge to suit acetate frames. Similar to the sheetmetal hinge, the acetate one has both an open and closed bias, and operates without screws. They also made it a goal to design the hinge such that it would remain one solid contour when folded, instead of producing a gap between the arm and frame like most sunglasses. To make this hinge, they had to develop a new process for bonding the small components used. They've revised this hinge since they released it; the older version holds the arms from the outside while the newer version is set in the frame.
Mykita Herbie with the older hinge:
Mykita Carlos with the new hinge:
Oliver Peoples is probably the most famous high end optical company. They began producing frames inspired by vintage American designs and have since grown in popularity and recognition. While many people now look down on OP since they've been bought out by Luxottica (and the quality has suffered in some cases), I find that they still produce some top-notch models. Quality is kind of hit or miss, though; some frames are noticeably better made than others. In my opinion, the Benedict model is one of the greatest classic teardrop aviators ever made. The solder points are very clean, and the optics are excellent, and the rubber temples are secure and comfy. OP's glass lenses are marked with their "VFX" logo. They can be authenticated by breathing on the lens, which reveals a logo that is otherwise invisible.
Benedict 59's with gold frame and polarized Java lens (fog logo in first picture):
Cutler and Gross is a British company that's been around for some time. Their philosophy is to produce classic frames by hand using traditional methods that take more time, but result in a better product. Their frames are polished by hand instead of chemical etching, which supposedly gives them a longer lasting finish. They have no outward facing logos like most high end optics manufacturers, but the inside of their frames feature a gold foil logo encased in acetate, so it will never rub off. Their signature feature is to use rivets to attach the hinges to both the arms and frame, rather than sinking anchors into the acetate with heat. Attaching the hinges like this requires more skill, and is thus uncommon even in many higher end frames. Many mid-tier frames like Ray-Bans feature fake rivets, where both the decorative rivet on one side and the hinge on the other are attached by heat sinking.
Cutler and Gross 0734 in "Humble Potato" color:
LGR is a newer company that began when the founder discovered his grandfather's collection of vintage Italian sunglasses. They make frames inspired by Africa that use traditional Italian methods similar to those used by Cutler and Gross. Their frames are made and polished by hand, and the alignment of the frames and lenses is excellent. A couple notable features are the spring hinges that extend to fit the user's face comfortably, and the mineral glass lenses with AR coatings. Glass lenses are not too common on high end sunglasses due to the weight, but LGR manages to make their frames comfortable despite that. Their line is very understated and high quality.
Promo video explaining some features:
Gold and Wood is a company that makes their frames by hand in Luxembourg. They're known especially for using natural materials like wood and horn in their frames. The optics are pretty good; they offer a lot of styles with polarized lenses and they use antireflective coatings. The frame quality is very high, but their lineup isn't as stylish as some other brands.
H13's with polarized lenses and buffalo horn arms:
Morgenthal Frederics is another company known for using natural materials in some of their frames. They're not as much of a small scale, hand made operation as the preceding companies (with the exception of Oliver Peoples, which is more like Morgenthal), but their products are of good quality. Some of their styles are pretty unique and interesting.
Ziggy with polarized lenses, acetate frame, and titanium accents
Here's another Morgenthal Frederics pair that's particularly nice. The Stealth Horn has the front of the frame made in Japan out of titanium and the arms made in Germany out of buffalo horn. The lenses are both polarized and photochromic (lens darkness changes with ambient conditions).
Another neat thing Mykita is doing is using Selective Laser Sintering to build some of their frames. A few other companies have since followed suit. This manufacturing process uses a high powered laser to melt powdered material in certain locations, layer by layer. The part is eventually built by all the layers, and the excess powder can be reused. What makes SLS different from other rapid prototyping methods, though, is that you can use it with a wide variety of materials and build stronger parts than you can with stereolithography or a typical 3D printer. Control over the laser also allows you to melt the particles only on a small boundary layer, so the end product is light and porous instead of a solid mass. Mykita uses a Nylon-like material in their process, and is able to make frames that are shaped in ways that would be impractical with other manufacturing methods, and are unusually lightweight.
Icco in sunshine with 24 gold flash lens (you can see the lines from the layers in the first and second pics):
So far I've only posted the higher end stuff, but there are a lot of good sunglasses out there that are less expensive. One of my favorite examples is Randolph Engineering and American Optical. AO made the aviators that were worn on the moon and issued to USAF pilots for a time. RE sought to create a product that was better and cheaper than the AO products, and currently supplies fighter pilots in the US military. I've heard that the RE's are slightly nicer than the AO's (I only have RE's), but the difference isn't much. And RE's ended up being more expensive. They do come with better accessories, though. Both companies feature glass lenses in very durable stainless steel frames, and are made in the US. The standard aviator is a slightly squared off model with bayonet temples that make them easy to put on and remove when using fighter pilots' heads up displays (they work well with headphones, too). Both companies also offer the more typical curved earpieces and teardrop lens aviators, though. The nose bridge is a little wide and the soldering isn't perfectly done like on some of the better high end aviators, but they cost a tenth as much and are very well-made compared to others in the same price range (I'm talking about you, Ray-Ban. These don't have unevenly tightened wobbly arms like my Ray-Bans). They're also durable enough that they will last for a very long time if properly cared for.
I tracked down some military surplus RE's so I could get them without the lens logo. Here are my 58mm ones: