Making tortoiseshell glasses by hand is a rare and exacting skill. One of the last practitioners, Maison Bonnet, is making sure the art survives, thanks to its keen young apprentice.
In the dimly lit basement atelier of bespoke eyewear firm Maison Bonnet, Franck Bonnet deftly bends a tortoiseshell spectacle frame into shape over an open flame. His apprentice Arnaud Falce eagerly watches the procedure. This is just one of more than 36 steps involved in crafting a pair of handmade Maison Bonnet glasses. Each pair requires up to six hours of manual labour for acetate, eight hours for horn and up to 30 hours for tortoiseshell. The company’s haute lunetterie approach has found fans in clients including Le Corbusier, Yves Saint Laurent and Jacqueline Kennedy – who were all undeterred by prices that start at €850 and a wait that could last up to four months.
Founded in the 1930s by Alfred Bonnet, the spectacle maker is now run by third generation Christian Bonnet and his two sons Franck and Steven across two ateliers – one in the remote village of Sens south east of Paris and the other on rue des Petits Champs in the capital, where Franck is based. Maison Bonnet claims to be one of the last makers of tortoiseshell frames and 63-year-old Christian was awarded the rank of maitre d’art in 2000, an accolade granted by France’s culture ministry and held by an exclusive circle of 107 craftsmen.
It is these exacting standards of craftsmanship that made 25-year-old Falce decide it was the only place in the world he wanted to work when he graduated top of his optometry degree class. Knowing he was up against stiff global competition – the legendary firm fields apprenticeship requests from all over the world – he took a gung-ho approach. After bombarding Maison Bonnet with letters and phone-calls, his persistency paid off. “Christian agreed to meet me if I brought a pair of hand-made glasses. My attempt in wood was a complete joke by Christian’s standards but he said it was a good first try and took me on in his atelier in Sens,” says Falce.
Falce stayed there for a year until Franck spotted his potential and moved him to the Paris atelier in 2012. Here he has worked under Franck’s tutelage ever since. “My father’s workshop is in a small village in the middle of nowhere and the fact that Arnaud left his family and friends to move there showed his dedication,” says Franck. “That, combined with his technical expertise in optometry, means I can put him in front of clients to do the fittings, which include measuring the face in great detail.”
Franck’s own apprenticeship with his father Christian began when he was 18 years old. This was an era where work was a tougher affair: mistakes were not tolerated and perfection was expected rather than commended. His own experience is why Franck makes sure he is generous with praise to his new generation of apprentices, and that’s something that Falce appreciates. “He is very patient, just like a teacher,” says Falce, who works eight hour days, five days a week.
Franck, who is a paternal figure in the atelier, sees this careful tutelage as his duty. Since the onslaught of industrialisation in the 1950s, the art of making glasses by hand has slowly become extinct. As one of the last survivors, Maison Bonnet feels a strong sense of responsibility to pass on the knowledge to their apprentices.
The firm has not bought tortoiseshell since the 1970s when it was made illegal but had enough stock to last them for a couple of decades. “Hardly anyone knows how to work with tortoise shell anymore. It’s so difficult and my father is terrified that the knowledge will cease to exist,” says Franck. “An apprentice such as Arnaud is essential; he will be a custodian of a dying craft. He is also someone I have to hand over all my family secrets to and I must trust him completely.”
1971 Born in Paris
1990 Starts working at Maison Bonnet
2001 Presents his designs at the “Objets Précieux, Objets Curieux, Matériaux Rares et Métiers Rares” exhibition in Pregny
2009 Opens the Palais Royal Maison Bonnet boutique
1987 Born in Valenciennes
2008 First optician job in Valenciennes
2011 Diploma from Institut Supérieur d’Optique de Toulouse
2011 Begins apprenticeship at Maison Bonnet
2012 Makes his first pair of spectacles from scratch