From early smugglers to modern eyewear, Hannah takes a tour of Julbo’s mountain HQ
There’s a multitude of cheap flights to Geneva. Perhaps it’s all the business travellers that keep flights running regularly, or perhaps it’s an attempt to lure unsuspecting travellers into Switzerland, where they will find that a bottle of water costs almost as much as the flight there. Turn your back on Switzerland and its towering Alps however, and you’ll find yourself heading away from the shiny watches and bankers of Geneva, and into the lost world of the Jura in France.
This range of limestone mountains seemingly bursts from the ground like molars from a gum. Steep alpine roads wend their way up switchback after switchback, through rock arches and round craggy outcrops in a manner befitting of any Bond film. Look across the great valley gorges and you can see the very layers of the earth rippling and creasing in gaps in the forested sides. Up and up, then perhaps down and down another snaking road clinging to another cleft in the earth, across an impossibly elegant bridge over a clear river, cling again to the road, and emerge.
Take a breath – perhaps a few deep ones, these are not roads for the faint of heart or weak of stomach – and beyond you will find the tops of the molars. Not flat, but undulating, under multicoloured meadows of grass and flowers, through which cowbells clang in their natural habitat, around the necks of cows which must surely have pulled the trump card when it comes to cow life.
It’s a struggle not to yodel as we pass steep roofed houses with verandas, all tucked into the lumps and bumps of this lost world. This is a landscape of summer hiking and winter skiing, milk laden cows and fresh air. It does not feel like the top of a mountain, but feels instead like the rolling hills of a wide valley or coastal land.
Occasionally there’s a village, or small town. Some cling to the bottom of gorges, teetering on either side of bridges. They’re not all pretty – unless brutalist ski chalets and tower blocks are your thing – but others are so quintessentially French they might have been built by set designers. French balconies with scrolled ironwork, ornate net curtains, and families having lunch around tables set out on the pavement, in places Americans might have garage sales. This is a land beyond the Geneva commuter belt, lesser priced and populated. It seems people do live here, but from what we see as we travel, most of them appear to be having lunch, or morning coffee, or afternoon coffee, or cigarettes and coffee, or coffee and cigarettes.
Rolling through an apparently deserted street in Longchaumois, a village nestled in a gentle fold atop this lost world, we discover an unassuming industrial park. A handful of units, small, surrounded by tall grass, it’s the kind of place you might take your car for an MOT at the kind of garage that will tell you how much it will cost to pass before they do the work – and are you sure you really want to do that, because the grommet under there looks like it won’t last too much longer either.
Instead of a mom and pop garage, these units are largely occupied by the headquarters of a state of the art eyewear manufacturer: Julbo. Stemming from the area’s tradition of small, skilled craftmanship, this independent firm is but a minnow among whales in the eyewear industry. You might think there are a great many brands to choose from, but ultimately most of these household names will be owned by one of two eyewear giants. Julbo glasses (and goggles) are made and owned by Julbo, and the two men who still turn up to work each day and – as I will discover in ways which are completely unexpected – will muck in with whatever needs doing.
In winter these uplands are transformed into a cross country skier’s winter wonderland, but for a farmer back in the 1800s this was no playground. To pass the cold months, the local farmers turned their hands to small scale manufacture. Apparently even rough farm hands can create delicate items – particularly when given the incentive of creating small items which are easy to smuggle across borders. Parts for watches, gemstone cutting, pipes for smoking, rulers (those classic folding wooden ones with brass hinges that your grandad and dad had), and spectacles – or to the commoners among us, glasses. All these items were carefully crafted by locals, and while ruler technology has perhaps not got a lot going for it, those makers of glasses that were to become Julbo, found ways to make their products better as the years went by.
These early days can be seen in the…well, what is it? The large oval table might have you think it’s a board room, but the kitchenette and coffee bar in the corner speaks to a more sociable and informal space. Whatever this room is called, one wall features a display cabinet which houses examples of Julbo’s glasses from the earliest days to the present.
The very first frames look like little more than cunningly bent wire, and with their tiny round eyepieces they wouldn’t look out of place in a cool East London coffee bar. The next frames in the case are the first example of eyewear made by Julbo specifically for mountaineering. Their blue lenses and side pieces, designed to keep out the glare on a glacier as early pioneers ventured to new heights, would surely prove popular in the Steam Punk market. Shades from the 1970s and 80s are timelessly cool, and the most modern day examples demonstrate Julbo’s commitment to producing eyewear specifically designed for a range of outdoor sports.
As a local company employing local people who have worked, lived and played in the landscape for generations, Julbo seeks to bring this connection with the outdoor life into its products. Each frame and the lenses the frames hold are specifically designed around the needs of each outdoor sport they are aimed at. Fog coatings, the fastest photochromic lenses in the market, tint colours, ventilation, grip, weight – each item is detailed to solve problems as identified by their staff in their everyday outdoor lives.
Not everyone is a racing snake, but there is a definite air of physical activity around the offices and industrial workshops. Office chairs are adorned with the race vests of a variety of skiing, running, triathlon, biathlon and other competitive sporting events. Many bear the vests from a staff away day – no corporate brainstorming session with Post-it note games and excruciating ice breakers here – instead employees took part in a triathlon. Benjamin, Head of Marketing, says that this outdoor lifestyle is a key part of the success of the company: designers in other brands aren’t spending their coffee breaks in the mountain air, ‘they don’t feel the shit of the cow’ (referring to the many bell adorned cows in the alpine meadows) whereas Julbo employees are working in the environment their glasses are designed for.
As well as the input from their staff, Julbo uses its sponsored athletes to provide feedback on products, suggestions for improvements, and advice on developing trends within their sport. While there, I’m privy to a meeting where the design team discuss secret plans for the future with professional riders Jerome Clementz, Mason Bond and Antoine Caro. It’s no fauning session either, with athletes gushing over every aspect of the products so kindly given to them by there benefactors. Instead, it’s a straight talking discussion between the designers and the riders – problems are criticised and successes praised.
The designs being developed and tested start their life in this room and the offices next door. A mix of hand carved prototypes, and others created using modern 3D printing techniques are used to develop the initial concepts. The carved models are impressive – it seems that this clear mountain air gives a steady and patient hand.
Having reached a stage when the design team is happy, which usually takes around three to six months, the design team creates 3D model on a computer. In a room which appears to be in the centre of the Venn diagram between office and workshop, these models are translated into instructions for machining the first moulds. Depending on the design of the glasses, there can be many separate moulds for one frame – for example softer plastic grip points will have a separate mould to the rest of the frame, side pieces will have another mould, and so on. These moulds will be cut in the metal workshop, where old fashioned lathes in that shade of lichen blue-green only seen on industrial machinery sit alongside modern computerised gadgetry that operate inside the safety of screens and locked covers.
There’s a lot of stuff inside this workshop – drill bits of all sizes line up on one workbench, while another has an assortment of tools that could easily be the territory of a model train set builder. It’s not messy however, and swarf is safely collected in glittering buckets that could surely be repurposed as glitter if it weren’t for the sharp edges.
The few people in this workshop seem happy, though perhaps that – and the tidiness – is a symptom of the fact that they are preparing to finish for the day. It’s nearly Friday lunchtime, and on Friday afternoons the workshop workers go home. I ask one man how long he has worked there, and he laughs ‘since I was young!’. His colleagues suggest he is still young – he is a keen long distance runner.
It’s just as well they’re a happy bunch, as it wouldn’t take much to find the workshop quite creepy. The moulds sit around the room looking like faces from Dr Who or Metropolis. That’s not a Cyberman watching you, but a mould for a pair of glasses which are formed in just a few pieces. That’s not a time travelling dark knight but a mould for a pair of children’s glasses. And that’s not the discarded eye sockets of a hundred horror dolls, but a box of early runs of sunglasses so small that they’d fit a toddler. We’re told that sun damage may be contributing to adult eye conditions such as cataracts and macular degeneration, and that sunglasses may be just as important for children as sunscreen. Having developed lenses to protect eyes from glacial glare and sun at altitude, Julbo sees protective eyewear for children as a natural development of its range and expertise.
We stroll out the door, across the road, and into another workshop. We can smell this one before we enter it, for here the moulds meet with plastics and the first examples of what will become the new frames are born. Once the designers and engineers are happy that the moulds are correct, they will be packed onto the van to Romania, where the factory which mass produces the frames is situated. That van will then make the trip back to the village of Longchaumois where the glasses will be stored until they are to be despatched around the world.
Before we move on towards this despatch area, our attention is drawn to a machine on one side of the plastics workshop. With trails of metal leading into it, around wheels, and into boxes, it looks like the sort of thing that might transport an egg from the fridge, through a cooking process, around your kitchen and onto your plate, with some neatly sliced soldiers on the side and perhaps an ironed newspaper laid out before you. In fact, this machine has been designed and built in house specifically to make the little clips and loops needed for the cords you might use to secure your glasses round your neck (something which is particularly important for some sports such as climbing – these are not like the cords your grandma has to hold her reading glasses). This is the kind of place where problems are identified and solved, even where the solution is as complex as the bespoke building of a whatdyamacallit to make the thingummyjigs.
We’re taken on to a quality control lab – by this time it is deserted as all the workers have gone home, many of them on the mini bus service that is laid on so that workers from the scattered mountain villages don’t need to drive to work. Here all the lenses are checked to make sure that the fit is correct and there is no distortion in the view. Having gone to all the trouble of creating lenses perfectly tinted, coated and treated for the specific glare, brightness, heat or humidity of a specific sport, plus frames that fit, don’t move, have vents, or are highly adjustable, this is the last step in ensuring the glasses or goggles are of perfect quality. If something does go wrong, or you break your glasses, Julbo keeps a stock of all parts of every model for five years after the model is discontinued, and the repair centre next to the lab will fix and return your glasses to you.
In the event that you’re unfortunate enough to have poor eyesight, Julbo also makes prescription glasses and goggles, as well as OTG ‘Over The Glasses’ goggles. The prescription lenses can be for every day wear frames, or the sports specific models. Through their RX Sport range, you can have lenses made for +/- 3.00 prescriptions in almost all styles, including the wraparound ones, and there are many frame options for prescription needs as strong as +/- 6.00. You can even have wraparound bifocals so you can read your Garmin, see where you’re going, and be protected from sunlight, using the same Zebra Light photochromic technology of the non-prescription options.
If you need prescription lenses, they’ll be made here, on a series of machines which grind the lenses down out of blocks of lens blanks. The NXT lenses which are used are made to Julbo’s own patented recipe. With NXT initially being developed to make Apache helicopter windscreens, you can be assured that not only will you have the best optical clarity possible without glass, but that if you do crash the lens will bend rather that splinter or shatter – keeping your cheek bones chiseled rather than shredded.
While the benefits of the ‘fastest on the market’ photochromic Zebra Light technology is in the lens itself, other coatings can be applied as necessary. The ranges designed for mountain biking will have water repellency and anti fogging properties, as well as a tint specifically designed to improve the visibility of trail features. Each pair of glasses will have different qualities specifically designed to meet the needs of the sport they’re aimed at, whether that’s mountain biking, climbing, sailing, or some other outdoor pursuit. While Julbo does produce fashion lines, these are secondary to the core business of glasses for outdoor sports – they hope that these fashion items will be desirable because they carry the glow of the palmares and engineering of the sport specific designs.
Whether you’re buying glasses to climb mountains, or fashion shades for chilling on the beach, your Julbos will have tasted mountain air, as they all start their journey to you at this small factory. Racks of glasses sit ready be picked and packed by hand and sent out in ones, twos, tens, or hundreds, to countries across the world. But this afternoon, all is still, and the only sign of the pickers and packers is their neatly labelled handsets.
And so our tour through the factory is complete. Yes, the Romanian factory does the bulk of the manufacturing, but it’s here that the designs are conceived, developed and refined. Problems are identified, solutions found. Christophe, one of the pair of owners, tells me he likes people who solve problems and just get things done. This seems to be reflected in the way the company works, and the way the people that work there go about things. From the building of the cord clip machine, to the fact that anyone is free to suggest how a product might be improved, to the weekend’s Enduro Jura by Julbo, where Julbo staff will be found helping out at the race, acting as waiting staff for evening events, and organising hotel rooms. There’s little sense of a hierarchy, and even co-owner Christophe can be spotted laying tables over the weekend. In fact, at the weekend’s race he takes the ‘getting stuff done’ approach to the next level, collecting an injured rider from the hospital, putting him up at Christophe’s beautiful alpine house, and driving him to the airport the next day. I can’t help but wonder how many company owners would go to such lengths, and how many would just delegate it to a handy secretary.
If you’ve not heard of Julbo before, perhaps it is because they’ve been living by the local motto of ‘Have a happy life, have a hidden life’. There are plenty of things to shout about in their products, and the way they go about making them, but instead Julbo largely chooses to let its products speak for itself, or through experience based marketing showing their products being used in the situations they were made for. These are functional and practical products made by practical and problem solving people. If you like the idea of buying from a company that lives and breathes the mountain air you’re seeking, then Julbo has got to be worth a look.