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As sunglasses technology becomes more sophisticated, it allows shoppers to buy on functionality rather than looks alone, and to have several pairs tailored for different activities and sports.
As sunglasses technology becomes more sophisticated, it allows shoppers to buy on functionality rather than looks alone, and to have several pairs tailored for different activities and sports.

Sunglasses are suddenly high-tech

Owning several pairs optimised for different activities is not only cool but healthy (though expensive).

They are made with the thinnest optical glass lenses in the world, which also contain a secret combination of rare earth elements to provide extreme levels of contrast and clarity, on top of being polarised, anti-glare, resistant to grease, water and infra-red light heating. And the hypoallergenic, celluloid frame has been polished over days using various kinds of wood chips and then hand-assembled. They are, of course, sunglasses.

But these, the first from the Italian luxury goods company Loro Piana, carry a price tag of more than Dh5,000. "The problem in explaining why, is getting across the level of technology," says the company's co-managing director Sergio Loro Piana, also a keen pilot.

"You can't set up all the machines to show how they are made. And without them, or without trying the sunglasses, they just look like another ordinary pair. But as vicuņa [a wool-producing relative of the llama in the Andes] is to knitwear, so these are to sunglasses."

Piana still expects demand to be strong for the model when it is launched this summer because the sunglasses market is evolving. If the cheap and almost disposable was once deemed acceptable, now increased awareness of both healthy vision and climate change, as well as growing technological literacy and more active lifestyles, are driving consumers to see sunglasses as performance tools as much as fashion statements. They are consequently building wardrobes of sunglasses for lifestyle more than style, with different pairs for driving, golf, water-sports, cycling, skiing or even just the specific environment in which they spend most of their time.

Certainly, if the more advanced sunglasses are starting to look like serious design statements, that is because they are: with the latest designs, aerodynamics, fit and comfort, the strength-to-lightness ratio, anti-fogging coatings, venting, lens properties, and protection against flying debris even to ballistic standards are all among possible characteristics, leading to an aesthetic that is more tomorrow's world than yesteryear vintage.

"The more special attributes that are built into a pair, the less flexibility there is to work with the aesthetics," explains Jamie Oman, the vice president of research and development at Oakley, whose recent Elite collection, for example, included the first sunglasses with frames made from pure carbon fibre, making them super-light but stronger than steel.

"But for designer and, increasingly, consumer alike, performance isn't negotiable," he said. "For someone to have five or six pairs, each defined by function, is not uncommon now."

Small wonder then that, without many shoppers realising it, the sunglasses industry has become frantic with research and development, with a new frame taking up to one year of lab work, lenses anything up to three years, but with any new idea filtering down into the mainstream within five years, according to Pierre Burgelin, international sales director for the French brand Julbo.

Among its latest advances are those that allow two types of plastic to be injected through the same mould, allowing variable flexibility, systems that allow personalisation of the position of the bridge and temples for a much better fit, and use of the latest NXT lens technology. This combines the supreme clarity of optical glass with the lightness of more common polycarbonate lenses, as well as allowing a polychromatic feature - which reacts to the amount of light - to be embedded in a lens rather than coated on it, where it is vulnerable to scratching. "That's a material borrowed from the US military, which developed it for helicopter cockpits," says Burgelin. "But the pace of widespread adoption of new ideas means we have to keep looking and keep pushing R&D all the time to stay ahead, especially with the market now changing. Most of the sunglasses industry is still based on fashion - you buy by brand or style and just want to look cool. But increasingly it is about functionality, about investing in the right technology for the right benefit."

Of course, according to the eyewear designer and retailer Jason Kirk, there is the potential for sunglasses brands to dazzle shoppers with science. Oakley, for example, while widely respected as an innovator, talks of its "plutonite" lenses, "iridium" coatings and "O Matter" frame material, as though it were forging new elements. "And it's long been a bone of contention when some brands put that sticker on their glasses promising '100 per cent protection against UV light'," he says. "If that were true it would effectively mean you couldn't see through the lens at all. But customers are taking a much more informed approach to buying sunglasses now. It is still a very brand-led market, but the more manufacturers make a show of their technology, as they are, the less important brand will become."

And manufacturers are more and more likely to become technology-orientated in product and pitch alike. Technology has, according to Federico Buffa, the engineering director at Luxottica - one of the world's biggest sunglass manufacturers, holding licenses for the likes of Revo, Persol and Ray-Ban - become "an increasingly important way to distinguish between products in such a competitive market, a change which has happened over just the last few years".

Accordingly, styles are taking into account ever more precise use: those designed for cycling will consider the angle at which the head may be tilted, while those for golf will offer better blue/green distinction; other lens types help skiers distinguish between soft and hard snow, or, for people who live near deserts, cope with the particular kind of glare from expanses of sand. New CAD/CAM (Computer-Aided Design/Computer-Aided Manufacture) systems even allow designs to take into consideration the fit distinctions between, say, European and Asian faces.

"Not many customers will be aware of how sunglasses manufacturers now look to the likes of the aerospace and automotive industries for new ideas, because these tend to explore extremes - of lightness or strength, for example," explains Buffa. "There are always new kinds of machinery being examined for use in our sector - CNC milling machines or microinjection moulding that allow for unusual shapes, for example, such that the precision with which sunglasses are made now makes them more akin to watch-making than the sunglasses of old."

So are we approaching a time when one ultimate pair of sunglasses might be created? Burgelin thinks not because although brands targeting more of a fashion consumer - the likes of Loro Piana, Ray-Ban (with Ray-Ban Tech) and Prada (with its Linea Rossa line) are now launching products with the kind of whizz-bang once only found in those from more specialist manufacturers - trying to squeeze all of science's benefits into one pair would lead to inherent contradictions.

You will, conveniently for the industry, just have to buy several pairs. But that does not stop the major players looking for the next big leap. For Buffa, this is likely to be found in bio-plastics that allow frames to be recyclable, chemical polarisation - a development that will allow the creation of a much thinner lens (polarisation is currently only possible using a physical filter) - or even the development of some dedicated alloy that could replace titanium.

Burgelin goes further - into the very idea of perception. His company is pondering the psychological effect of donning sunglasses, following research suggesting that wearing certain colour filters could improve athletic performance. Consider that next time you slip on your shades.

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