40 YEARS OF HOFFMANN NATURAL EYEWEAR
EYEWEAR PRODUCTION THE NATURAL WAY
For the brand’s 40-year anniversary, SPECTR sat down with Jutta Kahlbetzer and Wolfgang Thelen to learn about the delicate balance between maintaining the company’s historic core values while constantly advancing their craft with innovative technologies. Plus, there’s a special surprise – the Anniversary Collection of special releases, featured right here.
Horn eyewear from the Eifel region sounds almost mythical. How did it all come together?
Wolfgang: It all pretty much started with a company called Köln Optik. It was backed by a Cologne-based entrepreneur who manufactured horn eyewear in his vacation home out here in the Eifel. This is where brand founder Josef Hoffmann cut his teeth as an employee. He soon recognized that his talent and passion would help him achieve new things with horn. So when the end of Köln Optik came around, Josef Hoffmann went into business as HOFFMANN NATURHORNBRILLEN.
Horn frames had been around way before Josef Hoffmann. What made his models stand out?
J: Hoffmann refined horn eyewear to a point where there was no comparable quality available on the entire market. In the late 1980s, he developed Triplex Horn, a process that still enables us to this day to manufacture the world’s thinnest and lightest horn frames at the best stability.
What are the advantages of Triple Horn?
J: The frames retain their shape far better than a single-layer material, which tends to bend back into horn’s original shape.
Are there other peculiarities?
W: There are, for instance in the horn sourcing process. Back in the day, entire horns would be shipped from India to Germany. In the Eighties, Hoffmann went on what was then still a pretty adventurous voyage to India for several months, in order to install the necessary machinery at workshops on-site. And also to teach the know-how needed to cut eyewear-specific plates out of raw horn and press them flat.
Is the transformation of horn into plates a delicate process? And what are the advantages of making this step in the country of origin, India?
W: Yes, it’s a highly involving process. You need to apply exactly the right warmth and technique, otherwise the horn will burn or fracture. As of today, the entire industry is buying horn plates directly in the country of origin. This not only creates added value on a social level in the home region of the water buffalo, but also cuts down shipping volumes significantly for added sustainability. What’s more, the endemic workshops get to utilize the precious tips of the horns for button manufacturing.
Did HOFFMANN work exclusively with horn frames or did other materials factor into the mix over the years?
J: Right from the start, the company also worked with other natural materials. For instance, working with wood was on the agenda right in the beginning. In the 1980s, dyed silk was also used, which really hit the pulse of fashion at the time and created a bit of a hype – you could offer the right eyewear for every type. Style counseling around color types was really having moment at the time, and individualized outfits, hairstyles and make-up could be matched with the perfect glasses.
What were some milestones of company development after that?
W: 1986 marked construction of the company building, the Hoffmann-Haus, which is still home to our manufacturing outfit. Through extensive expansions the building assumed the shape of the actual Hoffmann logo, reminiscent of a giant “H”.
In the year 2000, you took over the company with all its employees. What is your personal background and what was the motivation?
W: Jutta and myself were already quite successful in kids’ fashion eyewear with our company IVKO. So there was already a fundamental affinity to eyewear, yet not including manufacturing natural horn frames. But we already had a connection [to Hoffmann].
J: Simply by geographic proximity – the Hoffmann headquarters are just a few minutes from our home town – there were lots of touch points. When Josef Hoffmann no longer wanted to lead the company, we instantly made a move. Already fascinated by the horn manufacturing operation, we saw great potential in refining this gem and making it shine even more. At this point in time, we have grown our staff tenfold and now supply 50 countries across the globe while constantly driving innovation.
What kind of changes did you implement after the takeover and what remained untouched?
W: We maintained many proven and traditional manufacturing steps in their original form. And also the familiar, easy-going spirit among employees. We take special pleasure in giving our collection a new face, which continuously evolves and blends timeless style with daring fashion sense. Ultimately, we came to recognize that a certain kind of finesse and trendiness can only be met by constantly adding new technologies to traditional manufacturing expertise – which as we all know figures into 80 percent of the steps involved in making horn frames. We can only soar to great heights in terms of creative details when we are open to implementing high tech. This is what allows us today to create the thinnest horn glasses and highly complex hinge and combination solutions, for instance featuring titanium.
Were there changes in terms of your product portfolio and distribution?
J: We almost never mention the expansion of the diversity in our color palette, although it has grown to over 500 colors and keeps expanding. We also expanded the distribution structures back then, and invested in advertising. As part of our success, we also grew our markets and staff. Today we work with 90 employees in the production and management of the Hoffmann brand. Another milestone arrived in 2002 with changing our name to HOFFMANN NATURAL EYEWEAR.
The name implies that you not only work with horn, but other natural materials.
W: Yes, because it was important to us not to limit ourselves with our name. We just had way too many ideas revolving around the potential of working with wonderful natural raw materials. And we have the know-how to utilize them.
What would be an example?
W: We also work with slate, which normally is considered rather cool and ambiguous, and implement a very delicate variety into super light frames. And we include genuine gold fragments into our horn frames. This kind of upscale finish is a great fit for the aura of hand-made eyewear and really emphasizes our frames as one-of-a-kind pieces. This “yin & yang” of heavy and light, warm and cold, smooth and rough materials creates a particular overall effect.
In how far do your wooden frames stand out from the rest?
J: Our wooden frames are simply different. Compared to other brands specialized in wooden eyewear, we focus on rather delicate material densities and surfaces. The look is more refined and lightweight than rough and heavy. Our hand-made touch is a bit more understated, but intentionally so. After all, our entire philosophy revolves around keeping the focus on the wearer’s personality.
What is the most unusual natural material you work with?
J: Probably alpaca hair. The hair is actually sourced from two alpacas by the names of Oliver and Beppo right here on our doorstep. These guys live on the great meadow behind our headquarters and seem quite comfortable here in the Eifel.
Overall, what is the significance of horn in your collection today?
W: Horn still represents by far the largest share of our collection. That’s because it offers the greatest benefits in terms of diversity, comfort of wear, and manufacturing options. I don’t really see that changing over the next 40 years.
Speaking of comfort, many wearers swear that horn just feels the best. True?
Wolfgang: Horn is skin-friendly and does not trigger any allergies. It feels warm and comfortable – the frame adjusts to the body temperature during wear and you hardly notice walking around with glasses.
And what about the look?
W: From a stylistic standpoint, buffalo horn is always something outstanding. The soft color nuances and grains radiate with a unique sense of nature. Every horn is different in its structure and color palette, which in turn makes every pair of hand-crafted frames truly one-of-a-kind. Last but not least, there’s a clear conscience about wearing natural horn frames. It’s natural, sustainable, valuable and individual.On that note, you place great emphasis on individualized frame production. How come?
J: Why do we offer individual manufacturing? The simple answer would be, because we can. But that wouldn’t entirely cover it. We consider individuality the highest degree of luxury we can offer people in the eyewear segment. Our capabilities go far beyond personally adjusted fits, but include far more individualized features. This goes from color combinations to material mixes all the way to special customer requests such as inlays inside the temples.
Have there been “extra special” requests over the years?
W: We have been approached by customers who wanted the elk and buckhorn from their hunting trophies implemented into their frames. That takes a certain kind of finesse, because buckhorn is basically not really horn, but more like bone in its composition. We are also especially proud of the fact that the Dalai Lama wears Hoffmann glasses. His frame has, complementing his traditional garments, orange-colored silk inside the temples.
Aside from natural materials, what are the USPs of HOFFMANN frames?
J: We make a conscious effort to eliminate all logos from the outside of our frames. And we cater towards a clientele that considers “understatement as a statement”. From a technical perspective, our most unique feature can be found in our V-Line.
In what way?
J: We manufacture the world’s thinnest and lightest genuine horn frames, which offer the highest longevity and stability thanks to a proprietary process. In order to achieve this, we developed a special hinge solution to make this delicate frame possible.
Please explain the principle behind the hinges.
W: The hinges in this series resemble a lock mechanism. The frames are connected at the same time the lens is fitted into the rim. What’s more, the hinge also stands out by its look, which is why we now offer it in a number of different designs.
How has the HOFFMANN design language evolved over the years?
J: When it comes to horn frames, certain classics will always remain current. A pantho shape or key lock bridge never goes out of style and always figures in the collection. But we also go with the times and listen to customers. We cover a wide spectrum. Anyone looking for light frames will find them just as much as bold, voluminous or refined shapes.
This year you are celebrating your 40th birthday with the Anniversary Collection. What’s the story?
W: Our Anniversary Collection consists of six models – one from each decade of Hoffmann history, meaning from the Seventies until today. We adapted the original designs into contemporary interpretations.
What was your overall motivation?
J: Bringing to life the charm, look, fashion, and attitude of each of these decades. But rather subtle than with grand gestures. People are invited to smile at how “old” frame highlights have been realized or enhanced with state-of-the-art techniques. Brought to life with the finishes and details of today. We also want to pay homage to the glasses of years gone by that have brought us successes and many back stories, and ultimately made us who we are today.
Are you planning further initiatives around your anniversary?
W: We will be releasing a company history and celebrate with our customers in several different ways. Prepare to be surprised.
Where do you see HOFFMANN NATURAL EYEWEAR headed over the next ten years? Creating eyewear via 3D-printing seems out of the question…
No, we will continue to stand out from the rest by focusing on the effect and quality of hand-crafted natural eyewear. As we already said, we really treasure individuality, sustainability, authenticity, and natural products as the highest goods we can offer our customers. We produce highly personal products – truly one-of-a-kind. Next to the natural graining, which is different for every pair, the manual production process greatly adds to the uniqueness of our glasses. These are the strengths we cherish and intend to build upon.
Thank you very much.
More Info: www.hoffmann-eyewear.com