American Optical relaunches with AO Eyewear shifting to its new manufacturing base in Chicago under the shared vision and craftsmanship of State Optical. This is a story of intense personal enthusiasm and drive on all fronts. This is a story of regeneration. This is a story of focusing on the essence of what it takes to build and deliver a great story we can all use to celebrate who we were… who we are… and what we can be.
–James J. Spina
President John F. Kennedy wearing his AO Saratoga sunglasses sits at the helm of the United States Coast Guard boat Manitou while sailing off the coast of Johns Island, Maine. This historic photo was taken by Robert Knudsen on August 12, 1962 and is from the White House collection of photographs from the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston.
Welcome back to this 20/20 What’s New page and a full page from our First Peek at 2021 photo feature in the first September issue heralding the powerful return of AO
Yes. This one’s very personal. Looking back just a few years, I was lucky to scribe a 20/20 feature on the birth of State Optical as it pushed forward on a dream to create eyewear in America. I journeyed to Chicago and witnessed the initial sparks of people and hands and machines crafting eyeglasses. The family-oriented entities of Europa Eyewear were in the heroic drive of creating State eyewear proudly made in America. The whole eye-witness process jolted me to a point that writers often fear. I was, quite frankly, moved beyond words. I decided to lead with my heart, knowing the confidence of my head would follow. To this day, my efforts to relay and relate on the part of State Optical continue to motivate and galvanize my ongoing deep study of this precious optical initiative.
Now there is a second wave to the continuing tale of American branding emanating out of Chicagoland, and this one is even more personal. A new chapter has commenced in an outgrowth of that blossoming facility in Chicago. The process of debuting the rebirth of American Optical (AO) eyewear is at hand, and it is likely nothing could be closer to my personal life and its relationship to eyewear.
The first pair of eyeglasses I ever recall are the American Optical sunglasses that belonged to my Dad.
These aviators with a leather case were in with the “stuff” my Dad Joseph Spina pulled together at the end of his stint as an Army Air Corp Master Sergeant in WW2. He had been stationed in Iceland for the duration of the war as a leader in a recon crew flying P38s over Germany. His uniform and overcoat and fatigues remained in nearly brand new condition since all were completely unsuitable for the frigid ground and air conditions inherent to his duties. But the sunwear, a classic aviator in a style that came to be known as The General, was well worn, though certainly far from shabby.
I eventually put the army coat, wool jumpsuit and parts of his uniform to proud use but he didn’t hand over the AO shades. They served him well in duty and equally well as his sunglasses for civilian life in the ’50s through to the ’80s. When I finally directly asked at some point in the ’90s if I could have his shades, he noted they were gone. Four decades of wear and tear had taken their toll. All he had left was the case which I gratefully took.
At some point in 1986, I ordered a pair of AO Pilots from a pilot catalog called Sporty’s. I still have them and used them in alternating use with personal purchases of Ray-Ban Aviators and Wayfarers until I stepped into my career at 20/20 and started tapping into the subsequent bounty of sunwear acquired from numerous sources.
I sort of guessed my vision dance with AO as an eyewear brand might be returning to the glance floor when about a year and a half ago, State/Europa’s Scott Shapiro hinted his company was in what was likely going to be the successful acquisition of a venerated sunwear brand. The domestic dance card that would appeal to Shapiro was very exclusive in terms of names, and American Optical came immediately to mind. It was no stretch to imagine Shapiro might have his eyes on either collaborating or joining forces with the company that was still producing a few metal-based sunwear styles out of their New England factory. And an even bolder step would be a complete buy of the AO company and brand with the whole venture potentially moving to Chicago, where an expanded facility could take on the production task delivering a double-edged advantage, so to speak, layering the making of metal frames onto the already stellar factory facility currently delivering State’s zyl frames.
And that’s a simple strut to what occurred. State expanded their factory in digs purposely designed for future expansion and in one daring leap, they not only acquired AO but added the dimension of being able to bring back classic AO styles of zyl that had been long discontinued.
So, in initial release the opti-sphere can now prepare for the debut of two metals, the original Pilot and the General (the style my Dad had) AND… the zyl Saratoga with all of them being crafted in Chicago using the best globally sourced materials.
In a brilliant and calculated move of acquisition and curation, State soaks up an eyewear tradition dating back to 1833 ripe with innovations as well as a host of iconic moments interspersed throughout the brand’s valiant run.
As well as the military connection of an aviator that touched the very core of my own family, it is gratifying to also consider that AO Pilot sunglasses were de rigueur for the entire crew of Apollo 11, with some of those exact specs currently on exhibit at The Smithsonian.
That aviator dubbed The General cherished by my Dad gets its name from General Douglas MacArthur. As an added aside, the very first Parting Glance page in 20/20 over two decades ago was a photo then graciously supplied by AO of MacArthur marching back onto a Japanese beach in his AO aviators.
And the newly reintroduced Saratoga has its historical accolades in order as well. The classic style, popularized by JFK, has not been produced by AO in decades. Aficionados will certainly recognize it even in its evolutionary state since it honestly looks like nothing else out there as familiar as it might seem. I’ve done some deep research on it in these last few years and affirmatively identify it as one of Buddy Holly’s favored specs. And although I’ve often noted some credit-glooming regarding shades worn by one Bob Dylan, I’m here to testify that in numerous past iconic captures of Dylan at work and playing, it is the soft sway of the Saratoga gracing his face and mystifying his eyes. Now might also be a nice time for an added enhancement: Celebrating the relaunch, AO Eyewear is offering a palette of six time-honored yet modern colors for the iconic style.
Since we’re into that “what’s new” aspect of our tale here, it might be time to consider some of the avenues State has pursued in delivering the sunwear.
Much focus has been placed on providing the highest quality lens options possible. AO has a rich history in optics and is famous for meeting the high demands of pilots, for whom performance optics are crucial. With the brand relaunch, AO Eyewear will continue offering a wide range of top-of-the-line lenses to suit a variety of consumer preferences, from lightweight nylon to optically pure glass, with polarization upgrades available. All lenses feature a backside anti-reflective coating and an oleophobic smudge-proof coating. Of special note, the mineral glass Skymaster lenses are sourced from Barberini and made in Italy.
While reinstating and fine-tuning original details, evolutionary design work also focused on improving fitting properties. Bolstered solder points strengthen the construction of metal styles. Precise shape enhancements improve optics and reduce glare, while offering better comfort.
The new debut takes great artistic care and concern with the brand’s powerful but simple shield logo, which will be featured on merchandising, packaging and related product initiatives. A relaunched website, aoeyewear.com, will share AO’s history while mobilizing the brand for the future and introducing it to new generations.
This leads up to my final wave of personal input here. Will I finally be getting a chance to own the sunglasses my Dad cherished? From what I’ve gathered in my virtual and aggressive phone connection research the answer is… YES… and… NO… in a good way. I truly believe the twists and tweaks and turns result in truly new and better AO glasses, attuned to tradition, saluting a venerated heritage and yet marching to a new beat of modern and progressive design and tech specs.
In reality, I’m thinking Sarge Joe Spina would have admired and loved these new AOs as much as if not more than the ones that helped him usher in the future following his defense of democracy.
To those about to wear some new AO frames… He salutes you. ▰
AO… Let’s Go!
This in-depth interview will have follow-ups from AO creative director Nico Roseiller and Independent Eyewear Manufacturing (IEM) president Marc Franchi in the next 20/20 exploring the the rebirth of American Optical.
Scott Harris Shapiro
Title: STATE/AO CEO
Gig: Chief Lunch Officer
20/20: When, how and why did the thought of bringing AO into the realm
of Europa/State come to you?
Scott Harris Shapiro: We were first introduced to the management at AO when they reached out to us to form a manufacturing partnership in 2018. At the time, AO was only producing two styles, The Original Pilot and The General, both in metal. They wanted to bring back the legendary Saratoga, which is a plastic style, but they didn’t have the equipment or ability to make acetate frames. Meanwhile, we had a domestic factory that could make acetate frames, but not metal. Expanding into metal production was a part of our immediate strategy, so we instantly saw the opportunity for a logical marriage. If we could combine the companies, we could acquire the rights to this iconic brand and achieve the manufacturing capabilities we knew we would have to invest in anyway.
What do you feel AO meant to consumers in America and the world? What will it mean moving forward?
I look at AO as the standard-bearer for eyewear innovation and fashion in America and beyond. That’s what it stood for throughout the 20th century, and that’s what it should stand for moving forward.
Define the power and potential of eyewear Made in America from both a personal and professional POV. There are so many reasons why being Made in America is important to us. From a strictly business perspective, making our products here allows us to stand out from our competition without having to play the licensing game. We can stay true to who we are while still expanding our offerings and providing relevant brands and products to our customers.
Personally, I’m passionate about our American factory because I think it’s reflective of so much that makes our country special. First off, we’re working to bring a valuable craft back to the U.S. and in the process proving that Americans can make a quality product as well as anyone in the world. But we’re not just producing a faceless commodity; we’re crafting a fashion item, one that at its best represents both American grit and the best of American culture and history as well. All the more reason why adding AO to that portfolio and being able to manufacture and market the frames worn by Ted Williams, JFK and Neil Armstrong is so exciting to us. We don’t just want to make eyewear in America. We want to make truly American eyewear.
AO was set to debut in March at
Vision Expo. The world changed via a pandemic. The debut has obviously changed but can you pinpoint and expand on this new way through to a debut?
The real frustration was less about the timing (launching a sunglass brand at the end of the summer is not usually considered ideal) and more about the execution itself. Launching a new brand at Expo allows you to commemorate this new adventure with your team and your customers. It allows you to show the collection in person and get immediate feedback that can help guide you for years. While our team has come up with a number of creative alternatives to those personal encounters, the truth is there really is no substitute for it.
Luckily for us, we have an incredible and closely-knit sales team that will be able to introduce this brand to their customers face-to-face and relay those experiences back to us in Chicago. Eventually of course, we’ll be able to exhibit AO at a Vision Expo. We’re very much looking forward to seeing our friends and celebrating—not just AO, but all that we collectively have to be thankful for—with them soon.