This Parisian Firm Crafted Glasses for Le Corbusier, Jackie O, and Yves Saint Laurent

Over the decades, customers have abided by a credo that might as well be Maison Bonnet’s tagline: “For one face, there is one pair of glasses.”

Alber Elbaz orders his eyewear from Maison Bonnet in multiples. Last year, he had five pairs made, and the statement frames—thick and dark; curvy, not angular—feature prominently on his Instagram. Much to the designer’s delight, people have been commenting that he looks more svelte. The secret to his newfound élan lies not in his diet but in the bespoke craftsmanship of Maison Bonnet, whose team of experts configured Elbaz’s glasses in better proportion to his cheeks. “It’s not at all an object—it’s an extension of you,” he says of the frames. “At Maison Bonnet, they look at you and measure you. Everything is so scientific, like a French atelier as it used to be. It’s a place where there’s tradition and newness together.”

In 1930, Alfred Bonnet first began crafting gold and tortoiseshell eyewear in the French town of Morez, and today, in Paris, his great-grandson Franck Bonnet leads the family firm. Over the decades, customers have abided by a credo that might as well be Maison Bonnet’s tagline: “For one face, there is one pair of glasses.” When you consider the faces immortalized by Bonnet glasses—Le Corbusier, Yves Saint Laurent, I.M. Pei, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Aristotle Onassis—that credo seems to have been borne out. At the Musée Yves Saint Laurent Paris, the designer’s original Bonnet glasses sit atop his desk as if momentarily set aside. When I mention to Franck grand fils that I recall seeing Le Corbusier’s frames in a Paris exhibition about architects’ belongings, he assures me that they, too, originated in the family workshops.

Maison Bonnet has remained in the family through four generations, and while certain aspects of the business have evolved over the past 90 years—namely, the introduction of buffalo horn and acetate frames—its artisanal craftsmanship and individualized creation are more or less unchanged. “Everyone talks about maison-this or maison-that,” Franck says. “But a maison is a tradition, a spirit, a family that has learned a savoir faire.”

Maison Bonnet's atelier. © Charly Ho.

He offers scores of anecdotes to support that claim. Once, a police motorcade blocked traffic when former French president Jacques Chirac came to the family’s atelier to have his glasses fitted. Django Reinhardt would come to the property with his guitar. Franck distinctly remembers I.M. Pei’s first visit; the architect was insistent that the pupils of his eyes line up on precisely the same axis as the bridge and hinges of the frames, and demonstrated with a ruler across his face to ensure perfect alignment. Franck’s grandfather designed Jackie O’s iconic eyewear (dubbed internally “Le 8” for its shape), which, as Franck tells it, she would often misplace. She had come to Maison Bonnet at the urging of Onassis, her second husband, a Bonnet devotee who insisted that both Jackie and the soprano Maria Callas, a paramour of his, be fitted for frames. It was Franck’s father, Christian (still active but based in Burgundy), who crafted Saint Laurent’s elegant, oversized tortoiseshell glasses, which stood out all the more when, in 1971, the designer posed nude in them for the photographer Jeanloup Sieff. Over time, Saint Laurent would nudge Christian to make bigger and bigger glasses—a “negotiation” that pushed the boundaries of Maison Bonnet’s protocol. More recently, Naomi Campbell made an appointment with Franck and will return in a few months for another order. At Maison Bonnet, you don’t get to just drop by. “Every appointment is a different adventure,” Franck says, with a certain hint of wonder.

Assuming you are in no rush and are not dissuaded by price (acetate frames cost $850–2,150, while those in horn cost roughly $1,350–3,100), you can order the same pair of eyewear favored by Le Corbusier or Yves Saint Laurent. Your Bonnet eyewear, however, will be customized only to appear identical, for the simple reason that your facial proportions aren’t exactly those of the master architect or designer. In two biopics of Saint Laurent, the actors who played him wore frames that closely replicated the designer’s style while also suiting their own faces. The verisimilitude was startling.

Crafting a pair of tortoiseshell glasses. © Joël Saget.

In the Paris showroom-cum-workshop, located in a passageway just steps from the Palais-Royal, Franck pulls out the Le Corbusier model in tortoiseshell and slips them on his face, which, in purely objective terms, bears next to no resemblance to the architect’s. The frames might look heavy on him now, but Franck says his craftspeople could actually recalibrate them—reducing both size and thickness—for his features.

“It really has to be the ‘wow’ effect or else there isn’t much point in making them in this way,” Franck explains. “Sometimes the ‘wow’ takes time, [because] it can be a new identity. But we work directly to the natural lines of your face.”

At the Paris location, there is a small workspace visible at street level and another below ground, where a compact arrangement of stations hints at the handiwork the frames’ form requires. There are handsaws, buffing and polishing wheels, even a Bunsen burner to heat the tortoiseshell.

Declared a Living Heritage Company by the French government, Maison Bonnet is unwavering in its traditions. Franck acknowledges his responsibility as a guardian of sorts. “In France, we transmit our traditions while adding in our own touch,” he says, nodding to an idea put forth by the artist and critic Jean Cocteau. “And that’s why we remain current and always thinking into the future.”

This story appears in the March issue of Surface. To experience the complete issue subscribe here.

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