I STARTED MY OWN EYEWEAR BRAND IN 2012. Gucewicz eyewear showcased sunglasses and spectacles made from exotic materials like camel bone, cocobolo or real mammoth tusk (yes Mammoth tusk, it’s pink and blue and was dredged up from the North sea by Dutch fishermen- it was quite a complicated process so that warrant’s it’s own post later!). The main ‘exotic’ material I used in every Gucewicz eyewear ‘collection’ was real buffalo or ox horn.
Why horn? - The answer is I had it when no one else did.
I first came across this ancient material while working a 3 year stint beneath the leaking pavements of New Oxford street, London, inside the underground workshop of James Smith and Sons’ umbrella makers. We used horn to make the ferrules (ie. umbrella ends) for the more luxurious umbrellas that we were making on the premises. There I saw, held and rummaged through filthy boxes of this apparently lovely and unique - since material caked in dust. From experimenting with offcuts and a bit of research I learned that real-horn was a kind of primitive thermosetting plastic : you heat it up and inside the microscopic strands of keratin proteins inside the horn melt just enough to make the whole material go all floppy and flexible. Then, when the whole piece cools in a new position, the strands inside are fixed in whatever that new shape is. I already knew that most non-metal rimmed glasses from before world war 2 were made from real horn this way, but by the early 2010’s virtually no-on was producing eyewear from real horn at all. After a little asking around of potential customers, I found people were as interested in this material as I was, but no one was making it.
Well, almost no one was making it.
A year or two before I was looking for a live/work space with an artist friend C.Billingham - we wanted a workspace long enough to set up a screen printing business for our wallpaper company we were starting at the time (more about this another time). The space we found was in Hackney wick, an eyewear factory that had survived two wars of German bombing campaigns over East London. It was called Algha Works they had a spare floor to let that fitted within our shoestring budget, so we were going to crash there too. They didn’t let us stay.
Recalling this place I drafted some to-scale drawings of an unoriginal 50’s wayfarer type design and got two blocks of real horn through the Smith’s work account. It was gunsmithing horn - usually used for extending the butt of a shotgun butts : it was very dense, black and rather boring, but The elder statesmen had debuted with another boring pair of horn glasses at the time, so I thought: this’ll be easy, I’ll just undercut Elder Statemen’s exorbitant price tag, make these glasses at Algha and I’ll make a fortune selling glasses for rich people. I thought it’s be easy (simplistic youth that i was).
I took the 26 bus all the way to Algha works. Dropped the designs off where they gathered dust for over a year before they looked at sampling.
6 months into waiting I go so impatient I decided to try making the glasses myself. No idea what i was doing I used a laser cutter at a firm near Bethnal Green that made architectural models and didn’t mind the smell (burnt horn smells like burnt hair). It took of lot of messy attempts, ordering parts through ebay and ‘borrowing’ tools from Smith’s or Algha and eventually got the first pairs made on my bedroom desk. They were all awful, but by my 15th pair or so it was getting there. By the time Algha finally produced the samples, I didn’t need them anymore.
I went on to make pairs of glasses that were some of the most terrible and some of the best things that I’ll ever make. I cannot fully endorse the idea enough : that if you want to be a create anything you start by making something, not just finding a factory who’ll do it for you. It was in those frustrating weeks worth of hours spent in absolute silence because I was as bored of the radio as I was of sandpapering horn plates down, that you get your best eureka moments and most inspiring and original ideas- in a way, it shaped my life for the following years.
I stopped this eponymous sunglasses brand back in 2015 to focus my time and energy on Lockwood Umbrellas, a project I started in 2014). I’ve learned a lot more about quality and what makes a good pair of glasses since then, and I will be relaunching a new Gucewicz eyewear range in the future- but like that feeling you get when your spending hours of your life sanding a single horn plate down - I’m happy to not force a launch until I feel it’s ready.
That really tell’s you only a tiny bit about what it’s like to hand made eyewear. Next post I’ll be talking a bit about branding building and sales, using another archive project as an example. please subscribe for the next post.
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