Acetate: Know what you’re putting on your face!
Updated: May 10, 2021
“Hi everyone, my name is Omar”
“And I am an eyewear addict”
Yep, another eyewear post, surprise surprise.
I apologise to everyone around me who has had to listen to me constantly babble about glasses for the last 5 months but i must admit, its genuinely interesting stuff and the engagement you guys have shown about it has only fanned the flames for me.
Now that i have that admission off my chest I have a bone to pick with the commercial retail and marketing world. What does luxury really mean? Well according to the mass market luxury means expensive, luxury means David Gandy’s face plastered across a billboard holding a fairly mediocre D&G fragrance.
The term luxury has been bastardised to such an extent that it is now a fairly inconsequential and hollow word, one that no longer commands the same respect it once did. Why is this? I believe this is due to the movers and shakers relying their brands having ‘lifestyle value’, in other words, if you want to be somebody you have to be wearing our brand, regardless if there is any substance behind the product.
We are now moving in to a generation that values quality, substance and integrity above glitz and glamour, this is no more true then in the eyewear world. Unfortunately the idea of premium tax is still extraordinarily prevalent in the eyewear industry, a pair of frames made from an nylon injection moulded plastic that most likely cost no more then £20 but is sold to the end consumer at around £300, that is before the addition of prescription lenses. I find this business model to be the antithesis of value, come on guys, we can do better. I feel the best place to start would be to understand what exactly are you putting on your face by grasping the myriad of materials used to create frames. Of course there is buffalo horn, titanium, sterling silver, 18k gold, but today I will be talking about acetate, a material who’s true understanding has eluded me.
Where do we start?
Well, lets start at the beginning.
If you haven’t had the pleasure of watching Bill Burr’s legendary acetate rant on YouTube I would urge you to watch it if you’re in the mood for gut splitting laughter. Nonetheless, Bill brings up a valid point, what is Acetate?
Is it plastic?
Is it high end?
Should it be avoided like the plague?
Mr Tom Davies, one of my favourite eyewear designers and friend has been helping me to understand the intricacies of acetate. Firstly I would like to lay the foundations, as of right now we are talking about cellulose acetate, this is also known as Zylonite by the Japanese market or Zyl by the Americans.
As a quick aside, celluloid acetate is a completely different kettle of fish. Celluloid acetate was the worlds first plastic material created in 1856 by Alexander Parkes and is created from nitrocellulose and camphor, dyes are then added which gives celluloid acetate its distinctive natural swirls, specks and streaks.
Celluloid was a rather brilliant innovation of the time as it was used to replace ivory. In particular, the Japanese became famous for the quality, colour and hardness of their celluloid, however due to the fact that it hasn’t been produced since the 90’s it has come extremely rare and consequentially valuable.
True Vintage Revival are a company I am aware of who sell very small batches of extremely high quality Japanese celluloid frames, this is absolutely something I would love to be able to experience.
From what I understand, the density and brilliance is unmatched. In spite of this, celluloid acetate had its clear drawbacks. Due to the materials high degree of flammability cellulose acetate became a far more stable material to use for spectacles and thus we say good bye to celluloid.
Cellulose acetate found its ways in the spectacle industry as early as the 1940’s. I was astonished to learn that acetate is in fact a bio-polymer that is most commonly derived from either wood pulp and or cotton fibres however hemp is also becoming and viable and compelling alternative to wood pulp. Of course as manufacturers master and innovate the production of acetate to provide a higher quality product the same also applies to the reverse. These cellulosic fibres have been replaced over the years by cheaper and less labour intensive options such as nylon and polyester, both of which are petroleum based plastics.
Don’t get me wrong, indeed these nylon plastics are inferior to acetate, however Nylon plastics do have their advantages. Due to their heat and impact resistance it makes for great sports eyewear, alas this is where the journey of positives end.
Essentially if a brand chooses to use nylon injection moulded plastic over acetate for a pair of fashion frames the only upside that will be experienced will be the brand increasing their margin.
All in all, acetate is made from renewable materials that do not harm the environment, it is hypoallergenic and with a premium raw product in the hands of a great craftsman acetate can be finished to have a truly mesmerising gloss and transparency. This was the point of which I realised that to even call acetate a plastic is sadly immediately positioning it along with other significantly less luxurious materials.
What do I mean by a premium raw product, isn't acetate itself a premium material?
I am sorry to make things more complicated but all acetate is not created equally. The same way that Scottish cashmere is the global leader, Johnston’s of Elgin is the best producer in Scotland, we have a very similar situation with Acetate.
Generally speaking the higher end acetate manufacturers are located in Japan and Italy, in particular the most outstanding factories are Takiron in Japan and Mazzucchelli in Italy. Tom Davies utilises both acetates across his designs and collections and I agree with him that both Japanese and Italian acetates have their own individual charm and character. However I must also align myself with Jerome Mage, the founder of Jacques Marie Mage who only uses Japanese acetate from Takiron.
Takiron has been around for nearly a century but it is the skill, scrutiny and attention to detail of the Japanese artisans that makes their product world renowned. Their process is also extraordinarily laborious and time exhaustive. Their acetate sheets require around 2 months for extrusion and 4 months to dry, to then create the exquisite patterns and colours the craftsman must then undergo a process that involves stacking numerous blocks of acetate together, this is called lamination and can take up to 8 weeks.
We are already over half a year in to the process and there are still no frames in sight.
This may seem ridiculous to you but this arduous process is known to produce a harder acetate with greater luster and a material longevity that is unrivalled. To wear and behold a bespoke Tom Davies frame in a Japanese acetate, or the tremendous True Vintage Revival 504 frames in their signature tortoise finish or a unique 10mm (I believe JMM are the only ones using 10mm) thick pair of Jacques Marie Mage frames is something that no longer needs any explanation. Your senses will confirm that that you are holding something very special indeed.
As mentioned previously, the Italian factory Mazzucchelli has its benefits too. Mazzucchelli has a different process in how they cut and cure the material which is called “block acetate”. The result is some of the most beautiful “Havana” tortoise colour acetate on the market. With nice blending of the light and dark spots of a tortoise colour. The only drawback is the material is a bit softer than its Japanese counterpart and may lose its shape more quickly over time.
I have read some commentators state that Italian acetate has a great colour vibrancy then others, after conversations with experts like Tom Davies and personal inspection of acetate locks and sheets from both Takiron and Mazzucchelli I find that statement to be untrue, in my humble opinion.
The Chinese are learning and improving in their usual fashion, extraordinarily quickly. Since we are talking about Chinese manufactures I want to take this opportunity to put the idea that ‘Made In China’ means terrible quality to bed. Indeed China is a hot bed for cheap labour however they are a country of extremely talented and dedicated workers. Using Suitsupply as an example, their Chinese factory has learnt the traditional italian tailoring techniques in such incredible detail that they now revival the Italians at a considerably lower price point.
As of today the Chinese acetate quality is not to the level of Japan or Italy but i believe it is only a matter of time effort they will e producing premium quality eyewear.
Am I at the end of my acetate journey or am I just at the beginning? We shall see, but i feel from defining acetate as a fancy plastic a few months ago to now understanding and appreciating the time and workmanship put in to producing the material and then finishing it in to a pair of frames has been one hell of a journey. I have even gone to the lengths of creating my own acetate block (thanks Tom for letting me do that!) But I am excited to be continuing to take you all on this journey with me in learning about eyewear and essentially upgrading what we put on our faces.