It’s Paris in 1971 and a young Yves Saint Laurent is photographed by Jeanloup Sieff looking leonine and lithe under a studio spotlight, naked but for a pair of heavy-rimmed spectacles. The maker of those subtly distinctive, curving frames was Robert Bonnet, a skilled “lunetier” who handcrafted glasses for some of the most famous bespectacled sybarites of the 20th century, including Le Corbusier, Audrey Hepburn and Jackie Kennedy Onassis, as well as for public figures such as Jacques Chirac.
Today, the fourth-generation family business, founded in 1930, continues to make bespoke spectacles for sophisticates. Franck Bonnet (first picture), one of Robert’s grandsons, says that despite the hyper-fashionable credentials of current clients such as Christian Louboutin and Rupert Sanderson, “fashion has no influence on us. We design frames to suit the face like nothing off-the-shelf could ever do – and unlike most designer glasses, there’s absolutely no logo.”
In the stone-walled basement of Maison Bonnet’s low-lit boutique in Paris, an industrious team of artisans tool, shape and polish the 1,000 pairs of spectacles the house produces a year, using techniques unchanged since the 1930s and labouring for up to 20 hours on each pair. Upstairs, clients try on a range of standard designs upon which their own will evolve, starting with an Al Capone, an IM Pei or a Liaigre, perhaps. Above this is an airy private consultation room where meticulous measurements of the face and head are taken. “Three angles of your nose, the prominence of your cheekbones and even the gap between your two pupils are considered before design proceeds,” says Franck. “We recently spent eight hours in consultation with one female client.”
Beyond this painstaking process, key to what makes Maison Bonnet’s chicly discreet glasses so special is the fine materials they are crafted in. Artisans work an array of buffalo horn, ranging from blonde to anthracite in colour, and a rainbow-like variety of acetate into any feather-light shape desired. The atelier is also one of the few remaining to offer frames sculpted from natural tortoise shell, a stock of which it acquired before it was controlled by the 1973 Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).
Prices for commissions can only be quoted once they are underway, but as a guide, the Séguin frames recently made for an Asian businessman in mink-coloured buffalo horn cost €1,400 (second picture), and the acetate frames – such as gorgeous midnight-blue pair (third picture) commissioned by a French female client – start at €950.
Last year Maison Bonnet supplied replicas of Monsieur Saint Laurent’s heavy-framed glasses to the costume departments of not just one, but both of the recently released biopics about the enigmatic couturier’s life. It’s unlikely though, even close up, that viewers will ever know who made them.