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In the woodwork shop, a lathe pulls 1,600 feet of aged newspaper beneath a glue applicator, and then rolls the paper into a tootsie-roll cylinder shape. The newfangled device — created by Shwood Eyewear — looks like it could be from a scene in The Imitation Game. The handmade wood-eyewear company designs its silhouettes, develops new materials to make the bifocals, and even re-invents old manufacturing processes.
Here, Shwood invented a system to roll-and-glue used newspaper back into a condensed log, slice it into discs, and cut out pieces to then use as solid, wood-like inlays for the frames. Essentially, the Portland-based company figured out a way to turn paper back into ‘wood.’ The limited edition project, called the Newspaper Collection, produced an exclusive sum of about 250 pairs. It’s that “natural materials story that sets the company apart,” said Concept Designer and Co-founder Eric Singer — as much as their creative ingenuity.
Officially founded in 2009, the to-be-Shwood concept of hand-created eyewear inspired by nature and made from natural elements actually began years earlier as an elaborate hobby of Singer. Back in 2005, he was living a vagabond lifestyle crafting wooden sunglasses for friends and family, trading pairs for goods, and snowboarding every day. Then Singer met the other four co-founders — Vice President of Sales Dan Genco, Creative Director Taylor Murray, CEO Ryan Kirkpatrick and Merchandising Manager Philip Peterson — who all “had more of a business sense” than he, said Singer. They recognized the potential for a full fledge business and each brought in their own skill sets. When the company launched, Singer was able to make about four or five pairs per day. But, that same week, Design Sponge posted a blog about the glasses, which caught media fire. Within a 24-hour turnaround, dozens of other sites summarized the story. Sales shot up immediately — predominantly from Los Angeles and New York, both fashion meccas — and the backorder list jumped to eight weeks long. But the waitlist didn’t dissuade people from submitting their orders.
“The company wasn’t this high fashion brand. But from the beginning we learned very quickly, that was our market — based off of the areas that were making those orders,” explained Singer. “Now, we’ve expanded that brand to action sports and the outdoor market.” Shwood began with one frame style of handmade wood sunglasses, which included a few variations of types of wood. Now, six years later, the eyewear has expanded to more than 400 retail stores around the U.S. and oversees including Australia, Japan and Europe. Designs have expanded to include more than 15 shapes made from an array of blended natural materials such as slate, cellulose acetate (a renewable material derived from cotton and wood pulp) and titanium paired or mixed with wood. The acetate is more forgiving, thus directed toward the outdoors scene. Categories include sun and prescription glasses. Considering all of the wood colors and lens options, too, there are more than 800 combinations from which to choose.
Amidst all of the experimental designs, one simple-yet-complex ingredient is the company’s devotion to utilize materials from nature. Most recently, Shwood launched the Oxidized Collection, which features aged-brass inlays. “We took raw brass and processed it through a proprietary oxidizing process to rapidly age the brass,” summarized Singer. “It’s like rust, but it looks way more beautiful on brass than rust does on metal” — with swirls of radiant blues, turquoise and gold. Then, they used a concealing coat to seal the process. “It’s another attempt to experiment with natural materials,” he said. The two variations include the Canby Fifty/Fifty with Mazzucchelli acetate (MSRP $199) or the Canby Select with exotic hardwood and aircraft-grade birch (MSRP $325). Previous projects have focused on repurposing materials including reclaimed wood — one line was made from an old silver-tinted, rustic-redwood barn in the Oregon countryside; and another design was created using decommissioned tropical-hardwood skids from Portland’s ports — as well as collaborating with Kentucky-based Louisville Slugger to make pairs from old baseball bats. By choice, the designs feature polycarbonate lenses rather than glass lenses — which would go along with the all-natural narrative—because, as it’s widely known, glass is heavier and less shatter proof. Regardless, Shwood uses in-house lens cutting machines to custom-cut each lens for every single pair. “Wood fluctuates and will expand and shrink, so if you were to try to pop the same lens into one frame it may or may not fit — [the frame] may have expanded ever so slightly,” said Singer. “What we are doing is way more organic than the uniform cutting process.”
About a year ago, the company relocated from a 6,000-square-foot space in the outskirts of Portland to its current 14,000-square-foot headquarters on the city’s southeast side. “We were bursting at the seams,” said Singer. “At our other shop, someone would be on the phone talking to store buyers and there would be a giant bandsaw creating loud noise, so they’d have to go outside. It was very bootstrap and in a way very challenging. It took us about two years to find [our new spot], so we outgrew the old location two years before we left.” The current grounds include offices, a wood processing mill and a creative workspace. “The sunglasses pass through 30 stations with different processes before they are finished,” explained Singer, including chopping the wood, reprocessing it into thin strips and laser-cutting individual parts. Once the frames are pressed and glued together they are sanded and buffed, and hinges and lenses are applied.
Clearly, craftsmanship, artistic touch and quality go into every pair. On the cost spectrum, the eyewear goes from about $145 to $400. Shwood’s consumers are choosing a long-term investment. To help spotlight the brand’s eyewear in each store, Shwood provides a display case for retailers, which comes with the initial order. Choices include a 1-foot tall micro tower, 3-foot high mini tower, 6-foot tall full tower, or a customizable case, which Singer designs and creates. At the moment, most of the creator’s hours are spent building such display cases, conceptualizing and creating the trade show booths, and about one-third of time goes toward product design.
“We’re always watching sales and whenever we put in a custom display case, more times than not, the sales skyrocket. For retailers, we’ve proven that there’s an incentive to place the case,” said Singer. There are also reps that help to make sure the store understands how to successfully arrange product in the display. “After 10 years, [wood eyewear] is not new to me anymore, but most people still think it’s unique. Having [the eyewear] displayed for the first impression, in the right way, is important,” said Singer. “When they are displayed correctly and have space to breath, and when people see them and they look the best that they can, then sales increase.”
Check out Shwood’s videos to see how the mentioned Oxidized, Louisville Slugger, Newspaper and Salvaged collections were made, amongst other limited lines.
— Morgan Tilton