Peerless in Rimless

West Coast Lens drills customers on its high-end niche 

by Timothy Herrick

Call Richard Wilhelm “lens-centric.”

“Eyewear begins with the lens,” says the president and founder of West Coast Lens, a Huntington Beach, Calif.-based wholesale lab specializing in processing lenses for drilled rimless eyewear.

Among lab owners, this philosophy may not be that unusual. But before opening West Coast, Wilhelm spent five years as national sales manager for the cutting-edge fashion frame designer Alain Mikli. Yet from his point of view, this outlook of lenses stems directly from his experience on the frame side of the business.

“The basic shape of eyewear revolves around the shape of the lens,” explains Wilhelm. “Eyewear is a fashion accessory and it’s the fashion accessory one notices most because people look at your face. When they see that eyewear, they see the lenses first.”

“The basic shape of eyewear revolves around the shape of the lens. Eyewear is a fashion accessory one notices most because people look at your face. When they see that eyewear, they see the lenses first.” —Richard Wilhelm

According to Wilhelm, the complexities of rimless eyewear have created a niche for a specialized lab during a business climate generally viewed as adverse to new lab start-ups. The growing popularity of rimless frame designs has placed increased attention on the cosmetic features of lenses—shape, thickness, edge-quality and tint—in eyewear design. In working with rimless, an optical lab must not only produce appealing lens cosmetics, but eyewear that can also withstand the rigors of daily wear with the same durability of a metal or plastic full-frame. If it can’t, a customer dispenser will be left with an unhappy patient who paid a high price for poor-quality eyewear.

“Drilled rimless have to be done right,” notes West Coast customer Sharon Katzman, owner of Ioptic in Sarasota, Fla. “The details of the lenses—the polishing, the cosmetics, how the screws are set in the lenses—mean success or failure. A patient spends $900 on a pair of frames, you want them to look spectacular and not fall apart.”

Indeed, West Coast already has a nationwide customer base of about 150, made up mainly of optical boutiques with fashion forward clienteles. It produces complete jobs and more than 90 percent of its work is three-piece mountings, with uniquely shaped and tinted lenses.

Wilhelm’s secret to success lies in the lab’s attention to detail. It begins with the dispenser with the selection of the lens brand, as well lens shape and other cosmetic features, and reaches fruition in the lab, where inspection is done at every stage, from coating (approximately 90 percent of the lenses West Coast processes are anti-reflective coated) to drilling. West Coast offers a one-year warranty on drilled mountings and each pair is sent with a special transparent tag with the lab’s name and its patient credo—“Remarkable… isn’t it?”

“My feeling is that patients notice the quality, and that difference in quality is remarkable,” says Wilhelm. “If a drill hole is slightly off angle, we do it over. We make sure every step of the way things are perfect.”

West Coast is remarkable in other ways as well. Last month, the lab moved to a new 7,500-square-foot facility. Unlike most labs, which often look either like a high-tech processing facility or a labor-intensive, somewhat cluttered work-shop, the new West Coast facility resembles an artist’s studio, with sleek white walls and pots of orchids sprinkled throughout the work areas, offices, conference room and employee lounge.

According to Wilhelm, the purpose of the aesthetic ambiance is to enhance creativity. The lab juxtaposes state-of-the art technology—such as a LOH generator, three National Optronics edgers and two CNC Opti-Drill systems—with several long wooden work benches, complete with racks of hand-held tools and files, hand-stones, groovers, buffing wheels and an old fashioned drill mount.
Even with patternless edgers, Wilhelm says, the lab staff touches up every lens on a hand-stone with a “softer stone than most hand-stones so you get edges that are without lens chatter.” For Wilhelm, chatter includes ridges, pits, bumps and other lens-edge blemishes.

This meticulous yet innovative approach has been recognized by other wholesale labs—which are farming drilled-rimless jobs out to West Coast—as well as frame companies, whose sales representatives are recommending the lab to dispensers for their three-piece mount lines. Two leading frame manufacturers—Cartier Eyewear and Lindberg Eyewear—have formalized this relationship. Cartier designated West Coast as an “Authorized Cartier Lab” and Linberg Eyewear has named it a “Preferred Lab.” The two programs are similar. The frame manufacturers have sent technicians to the participating labs to make sure the processing facilities meet company standards. They equip the lab with tools and spare parts and, in turn, recommend the designated labs to dispensers as a way of ensuring quality control on their high-profile brands.

Building a reputation for quality rimless work is proving to be merely the starting point.  In addition to designing new lens shapes, such as tulips and clouds, Wilhelm’s lens staff is contriving unique fashion lens tints, from acid-greens to earth tones and innovative gradients. The lab already offers two types of edge “finishes”—a “glass” or high-luster, shiny polish and a “matte,” a lower gloss, more muted edge. It also recently developed a gradient selection for customers’ younger, hipper clientele. The painstaking and time-consuming process devises not just distinct gradient colors, but also transition colors—essentially creating a seamless visual segue where tints morph into the different shades of the gradient.
Thus far, test marketing the new product has been nearly as innovative. West Coast Lens has offered select optical boutiques in the southern California area the opportunity to apply the multi-colored gradients and other fashion tints to demo lenses for frames that have remained “on the boards” for more than a year. “It freshens up stale product,” notes Wilhelm.

The lab is venturing into frame design as well, with “Salt,” an ophthalmic sunwear line designed by Wilhelm scheduled to be introduced by mid-year.

“Many people thought (last year) was not the best time to start a lab,” admits Wilhelm. “But rimless jobs take a level of craftsmanship that a lot of labs no longer have and there are a lot of dispensers, especially high-end opticians, that are selling superior eyewear and getting unhappy patients because of inferior lab work. High-end dispensers need a wholesale lab capable of producing this sort of work on a consistent basis. What has happened is they start using me with the difficult jobs and when they see the quality, they start sending the more mainstream rimless jobs.”