22 Dec 2017
Silmo's 50th Anniversary Outing still has an Eye on the Future
Founded in 1967 and now Europe's leading event for the optical industry, Silmo 2017 saw many exhibitors looking to reinvent past glories, although the majority were focused on innovative techniques and high-tech materials.
There was an unmistakeable party atmosphere at this year's Silmo Paris, which was only fitting given that 2017 marked the optical show's 50th anniversary. Fortunately, it wasn't short of well-wishers keen to celebrate this particular milestone, with more than 34,500 attendees pouring through the doors of the Paris Nord Villepinte during the course of the four-day event.
Despite its venerable age, however, there was no suggestion that the show had peaked and every expectation that it would continue to expand. Any such expansion, of course, is reliant on the continuing growth of the overall optical sector and, fortunately, there are a number of reasons to believe that is pretty much a given.
According to recent research by Global Market Insights, a US-based management consultancy, the world's eyewear market may be worth as much as US$180 billion per annum by 2024, almost double its 2016 total of $95 billion. This astonishing growth is expected to be driven by a number of economic, cultural and technological factors.
On the economic front, the luxury sector is expected to boom in line with rising income levels in many of the developing nations. In cultural terms, early and prolonged exposure to digital displays will see greater demand for children's glasses, while technological advances in the 3D-printing, smart-wearables and contact-lens sectors will also deliver heightened sales levels.
Such statistics aside, the show continues to be a joy to visit – exceptionally well organised and easy to navigate. With the showfloor divided into clearly defined dedicated spaces for spectacle design, ophthalmic and contact lenses, low vision, laboratory equipment and visual merchandising products, even the most optically challenged attendee would struggle to get lost.
This year, as well as the expected array of exhibitor stands, there were a number of novel additions to the showfloor, most notably a range of engagingly experiential pop-up stores and the new Silmo Secret Store, said to offer a glimpse of the kind of immersive sales outlets set to be introduced several years down the line. The latter also gave attendees something of an insight as to how the industry could meet the growing challenge of e-commerce, a sector set to surge in the coming years.
For many businesses, both optical and non-optical, adding value has long been seen as the key way of combatting the low-price proposition adopted by the majority of e-commerce platforms. With this in mind, this year's event showcased a number of ways that opticians could drive footfall, most notably through the use of diagnostic and demonstration technology. The standouts here were Nidek's TS-310 tabletop subjective refraction system, winner of the 2017 Equipment Award, and Nikon Studio, a multi-point diagnostic centre customisable for use in any shop space.
For those preferring to attract new business by burnishing their own credentials, there was also the opportunity to top up on Continuous Professional Development credits courtesy of a visit to the Silmo Academy or by participating in the event's seminar programme. There was also Silmo TV, a continuous video presentation featuring a number of industry luminaries, including the winners of this year's Meilleurs Ouvriers de France, an annual award recognising France's finest craftspeople.
It was also easy to keep up with the latest innovations, with the onsite Ab Fab lab providing a showcase for cutting-edge ideas, new processes, high-end manufacturing techniques and advanced materials. Many of the featured items later went on to success in the Silmo D'Or Innovation and Creativity Awards, an event held on the second night of the show.
In terms of the overall trends evident this year, while vintage designs remained hugely popular, there was no shortage of high-tech innovation. Indeed, many exhibitors were only too keen to highlight their own advances, whether in terms of production techniques, materials or design, with many traditional styles given a modern makeover or re-engineered in an entirely new material.
On the nostalgia front, it seemed only fitting that one of the standout designers from the first Silmo event in 1967 – Philippe Chevalier – was back for the show's 50th iteration. In the late 1960s, his avant-garde eyewear designs were among the first to feature on the catwalks of many the most high-profile, high-fashion events in Paris and played a key role in making spectacles stylish.
For 2017, he was attending the show to launch an eponymous range on behalf of UK-based Brando Eyewear. Founder Michael Jardine, a veteran of the optical industry, said he had long been inspired by Chevalier's work, especially the period frames he created for Givenchy, which are now much sought out by wealthy collectors, including Elton John, and can fetch up to US$50,000 at auction.
Having bought the rights to Chevalier's earlier designs, Jardine then hired another industry stalwart, Luisa Cooper, as his Creative Director, who in turn tracked down Chevalier himself. The venerable French designer was then persuaded to share his archive of original sketches and prototypes, which ultimately formed the basis of Brando's new range.
Brando, though, was far from the only optical company to reinvent past glories as contemporary icons. Germany's Eschenbach, for instance, had re-engineered the entire collection it offered in 1913, its first year in business, in new, lighter materials as the basis of its Jos range. In something of an upgrade to the original models, the new range features a screwless hinge and sells for about $280.
In the case of London's William Morris, it sought to highlight its quintessential English style by incorporating a full-sized, red double-decker bus into its stand. The bus – a 1960s' Routemaster – formed the backdrop for its huge array of high-quality, yet comparatively affordable, frame styles, of which the hero was its new Gold Collection, which comprised nine retro-inspired styles complete with contemporary flourishes, all crafted in a premium acetate designed to produce a lighter, thinner, yet denser, frame.
At the show, the company made no secret of its plans to expand into the Asian market. As a consequence, its double-decker roadshow is apparently heading off to Silmo Bangkok in 2018.
In terms of materials, cellulose acetate is by far the fastest-growing segment of the frames market and is projected to account for 140 million units by 2024, largely a result of its low weight and low cost compared with other materials. Demand for metal frames overall is expected to grow by 3% over the next seven years, a development set to be driven primarily by the increased appetite for contemporary styles.
A number of manufacturers, however, have taken to using metal in retro-inspired glasses, with several Italian designers taking an innovative approach to the use of titanium and beta-titanium, its more flexible stablemate. One company that was clearly making a name for itself in this sector was Italy's Blackfin. Styling itself as both a neo-classicist and a specialist in the titanium eyewear sector, the business took this year's Special Jury Award at the show for its Arc range – screwless, futuristic spectacles with nylon-injected lenses.
Hapters, meanwhile, a fellow Italian business, was taking a similar, though quite distinct, approach to the use of titanium. Founded just four years and exhibiting at Silmo for the first time, the company had on offer a collection of industrial-style sunglasses, apparently inspired by a pair of WW2 army goggles found abandoned in the Dolomites. The range features a striking combination of razor-thin titanium and processed, stiffened cotton, creating a strong, light and flexible frame, and retailing for about $470.
Elsewhere, it was clear that these new materials had resulted in the creation of some astonishingly good-value propositions. Fleo, the French manufacturer previously known as GP International, for instance, had on offer a range of extremely light and flexible titanium/carbon frames for just $35.
Despite such clear bargains, there still seemed to be a lucrative niche for traditional materials at the top end of the market, particularly in the case of buffalo horn. The resurgence in the practice of keeping water buffalo as meat animals has created an unprecedented supply of horns, with one company in particular – Germany's Onono – turning this surfeit to its clear advantage.
Notable for its breathtakingly beautiful ebony packaging and high production values, every year Onono tasks just one designer with creating 12 limited-edition frames. Each designer is only ever asked once, ensuring each year's collection is unique. With Onono in its 12th year of operation, there are now 144 frames to choose from, each selling for up to $2,600.
Silmo 2017 took place from 6-9 October at Paris Nord Villepinte.
Simon Sinclair, Special Correspondent, Paris