Maison Bonnet’s Iconic Eyewear Styles
Maison Bonnet, a family-owned eyewear atelier with workshops in London and Paris, has made iconic frames for some of the world’s biggest names such as Audrey Hepburn, Jackie Onassis, and Yves Saint Laurent.
For almost a century, the family has been crafting custom glasses according to the rules of bespoke or la grande mesure (high-end made-to-order).
France considers the small atelier a national treasure for upholding the French artisanal legacy of quality—similar to CHANEL and Champagne.
According to fourth generation owner Franck Bonnet, the company is the smallest eyewear manufacturer in the world, crafting approximately 2,000 pairs of glasses per year.
The only eyewear company (lunetterie) to be awarded the Parisian Minister of Culture’s prestigious title of Maître d’Art, Maison Bonnet has been passed down in the family since the 1950s.
“Being a family business, tools are transmitted from grandfather to grandson. … At our heart, we have to preserve and pass on our ancestors’ dexterity,” Bonnet says.
At the same, the company is evolving, equipping its vision clinics with cutting-edge optical machines for high-tech lenses.
Robert Bonnet founded the company in the 1950s after learning the trade from his father, Alfred.
One of the company’s specialized skills is to shape rare tortoiseshell through a grafting process that uses a combination of heat, pressure, and humidity to transform them into unique frames that last a lifetime.
Robert passed down the know-how to his son, Christian, when the latter was 14 years old. Now, the company is in the hands of Christian’s three sons: Franck, Steven, and John.
These days, John inspects all of the tortoiseshell pieces with his father. Franck focuses on the brand’s vision, while Steven is the head of creation. Their mother, Marie-Christine, helps with administration, and John’s 20-year-old son is learning the trade.
The appeal of bespoke glasses
In the 1960s, Greek billionaire Aristotle Onassis noticed the company’s superior craftsmanship and design.
“He was crazy about his tortoiseshell glasses. He had trays of them, a pair in every house, boat, and car. He didn’t take a trip to Paris without new orders and deliveries,” Franck Bonnet says. “There was never a picture of him without spectacles.”
At Maison Bonnet, an eyewear specialist records 12 measurements for each client, measuring multiple nose angles, the position of the eyebrow line and ears, the projection of the cheeks, the length of the eyelashes, and even the pupillary distance.
“A face is never symmetrical. No one has a perfectly straight nose, both ears at the same height, a uniform skull, or the eyebrows at the same level,” Bonnet says.
“A millimetre seems like nothing, but on someone’s features it radically changes the fit of the frame and the quality of the vision.”
As much as the atelier has mastered the old savoir-faire of handmade eyewear, it also possesses an uncanny ability to design a style that reflects the personality of its client.
“The starting point (of the design process) is someone’s features and personality, not the will to create an iconic piece,” Bonnet says.
For example, former French president Jacques Chirac cemented his fashion legacy with his bold-rimmed Maison Bonnet eyewear.
“Jacques Chirac was himself a statement, a dandy of his time. He was a tall, handsome man with an immoderate love for people,” Bonnet says. “He was a ‘king of style,’ so we had to create objects on his own level—objects that expressed his personality.”
Maison Bonnet also supplied Chirac’s political opponents with frames, including former French presidents Valéry Giscard d’Estaing and François Mitterrand.
Another famous client was iconic fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent.
“He wanted oversized glasses to hide behind,” Bonnet says.
To create his first pair of eyewear, Saint Laurent had a long conversation with Robert and Christian Bonnet. The designer wanted the frame to cover the brow line, which was an eyewear taboo since the frame would have covered his expressions.
But the fashion icon insisted, leading to the oversized frames that have become the famous YSL style.
“We did a lot of frames for Monsieur Saint Laurent,” Bonnet says. “We always started from the previous one to make it evolve—sometimes more square, thicker, or bigger depending on the evolutions of style and the changes of his face.”
Maison Bonnet’s legacy with celebrities is as long as its heritage. When Jackie Onassis, the former U.S. first lady, met with Robert Bonnet, the latter reinterpreted her favourite pair of oversized glasses, adding interlacing to create the famous “figure eight” Jackie O. design.
“We create accurate stylish pieces to the measure of one’s character and role. This is why once you wear bespoke spectacles, you can’t go back to ready-to-wear,” Bonnet says.