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Bespoke glasses at TD Tom Davies

18 October 2010
 
 
 
 
It turns out my neighbour is friends with a guy called Tom Davies, who is the largest maker of bespoke glasses in the world. And Tom’s studio is half a mile from where I grew up (East Sheen, south-west London). So, interested in learning about an area of bespoke I know nothing about, and hankering after some home cooking, I popped down to Sheen a couple of weeks ago to meet Tom.
 
How he got here is quite interesting. When he left university, aged 21, Tom decided on a whim to go to China. He worked in a glasses factory, designing frames and the machinery that made them. During the nine years he was there, one particular project fascinated him – when the company tried to build a machine that could manufacture titanium glasses. It failed: the machinery could only be made to construct individual pairs, which was not economic. But the experience of making single pairs of glasses inspired Tom. And when he came back to London in 2000, he set up a business making bespoke.
 
[This reminds me of a recent interview with Turnbull & Asser CEO Steven Miller: Steven said one reason T&A has never invested in much shirtmaking machinery is that any new machines are designed for mass production, not the one-off runs needed for bespoke. They don’t stick with flat-bed sewing machines on principle.]
 
Tom’s bespoke business was pretty successful, particularly in the client list it generated, and he also designed a ready-to-wear line. But the turning point was in 2008, when he returned to China and set up his own factory. From the start, it was designed to make individual pairs of glasses, to order. Half the machinery he designed himself. So now all his glasses, whether ready to wear, bespoke or ‘couture’, are handmade one by one.
 
That means the second and third categories (which, for comparison with suiting, should actually be thought of as made to measure and bespoke, respectively) are far more efficient. It only costs marginally more to change the arm length, colour, nose setting, depth and width of a pair of ready-to-wear glasses you see in an optician’s.
 
 
And that’s how Tom works: a select number of opticians (currently over 200 in the UK, more in Europe and a growing number in the US) carry his glasses together with a set of callipers to measure your temples and head above the ears, a series of sample frames with different nose settings, and lenses that indicate the position of the eyes and angle within them. The optician designs the pair for his customer and sends out the order, which comes back in less than eight weeks. With anyone else that would take several months.
 
Altering all these little details to get the perfect fit in a pair of glasses is what Tom calls bespoke. The next level up is couture. Here the same set of measurements is taken and design elements considered, but three photographs are taken (without glasses, with the measuring glasses, with a frame you like) and the guys in China design a completely new frame to suit your face. That creates a portfolio, from which your perfect shape is chosen.

You can see why I draw parallels with suiting. Tom’s ‘bespoke’ is rather like made to measure, where you get something made to fit you along a set number of measurements. ‘Couture’ is more like a bespoke suit – a whole new pattern is cut from scratch.

 

My current glasses are also like a good ready-to-wear suit, in a way. Tom said they fitted my face pretty well, with the eyes relatively central within the lenses but the width of the frame offsetting how close the eyes are together. The arms are a tiny bit short, though the difference between width at my temples and my ears (10mm) is very standard. The nose setting is not ideal, and indeed I have noticed that if I wear them for more than a few days in a row I get red patches under the pads. That classic round shape is called a panto, apparently.

 
Tom’s glasses are all designed on a CAD machine, and the basic front is stamped by a machine. But there is a lot of hand shaving to get the measurements precise, hand polishing, hand-bending of the frames and hand finishing. The construction reminds me more of benchmade shoes – experienced guys using their hands to manipulate something in a machine. You can see a video of the process here.
Prices vary from £240 for ready to wear and £295 for bespoke up to £350 for couture. The Buffalo horn range is rather more, but does involve picking out your own chunk of horn for both front and arms of the glasses, and deciding exactly where the frame should be cut out. Like picking your cloth for a suit and deciding on the lay.
 
Tom kindly offered to make me a pair, so I had some measurements taken. More details next time.