Lenses & Technology: L&T New Products


High Times

In the 1970s and 1980s, economists decried the shrinking of the middle class in the United States. Their argument held that our society was becoming one of the very rich and the very poor, with an ever-diminishing population making up the socio-economic categories in between.

That same philosophy can definitely be applied to today’s lens market.
Just as income serves as a measurement of personal wealth, index of refraction largely determines the market value of lens products. Looking at the lens market, low-priced conventional hard-resin plastic—with an index of 1.50—remains the most popular with patients, accounting for 50.7 percent of sales, according to the 20/20 MarketPulse—Premium Lens Survey of Independents. Though these numbers indicate the majority of patients remain drawn to the low end of the market, a second, albeit smaller, segment of the eyeglass-wearing population has been drawn of late to the upper end of the index market—lenses with indexes of refraction of 1.66 and above. Let’s call them “higher-index” lenses.
In essence, with the exception of polycarbonate—at a refractive index of 1.59—lenses falling in the 1.54- to 1.60-index range may be where economists feared the U.S. middle class would be some 20 years ago. According to the most recent 20/20 survey, mid-index products account for less than 2 percent of sales in independent dispensaries while high-index designs (defined as 1.60 and above) make up 15.9 percent.

“We’ve seen two areas of growth in the high-index category—polycarbonate, which we consider high-index, and 1.66, 1.67 and above,” notes Ralph Woythaler, president of 21st Century Optics, a wholesale lab based on Long Island City, N.Y. “People seem to be moving away from lenses in the 1.54 to 1.56 range and demand for 1.60 has also been affected.”

The reason for this, wholesalers and retailers say, is differentiation. By most accounts, the dispenser community had been skeptical about the prospects for success for premium, high-index plastic lenses as manufacturers began flooding the market with products—and expanding the index limits higher and higher—in the category. The reason? Price. Few believed a significant number of patients would be willing to dish out the dollars necessary for the aesthetics of thin and lightweight lenses. As a result, perhaps, in the mid-1990s, manufacturers began pushing a generally lower-priced—and lower-index—alternative within the category, introducing mid-index lenses to the market.

“In those days, there was some resistance to the [higher-index] lenses at retail,” recalls Matt Iovaldi, owner of Midland Optical, a St. Louis-based wholesaler. “Customers were telling us, ‘We can’t sell a product that costs that much.’ Eventually, however, they realized they could.”

Indeed, mid-index lenses still serve a vital role as a generally lower-priced alternative—with better optics, in most cases—within the high-index category for patients with lower Rxs (dispensers generally agree patients with prescriptions between +/-5.00D can do well in mid-index lenses). But, higher-index lenses offer significant cosmetic benefits over their poly and mid-index counterparts.
Depending on the brand (and material), 1.66- and 1.67-index lenses can be as much as 15 percent thinner than poly and mid-indexes lenses. This is especially true now. Thanks to improved hard-coating technology, many of these lenses can be ground to a 1.0mm center thickness. Further, 1.71- and 1.74-index plastic lenses, which have been offered by some manufacturers in the U.S. in recent years, can be as much as 15 to 20 percent thinner than 1.66/1.67 lenses.
Brian Goldstone, owner of Express Lens Lab in Fountain Valley, Calif., says these “higher-index” lens products have been successful because they offer “total thinness.”

“We had a job recently, a -13.00D,” he recalls. “Both the doctor and the patient wanted the thinnest possible edge. It was worth it for the patient to pay whatever price was necessary to accomplish that. We gave them a 1.67.” Which is not to say these “higher-index” products have been limited to high-Rx patients. Woythaler says his lab has seen orders for 1.66-index and above lenses in “lower Rxs.”

“We’ve gotten orders for -1.25D in those lenses,” adds Goldstone. “It’s a cliché, but I think with all the web sites out there these days, we have more nowledgeable patients coming in, saying they want the thinnest possible lenses.” Retailers say they’ve also seen an increase in patients requesting specific brands within the high-index category.

It’s important to note, however, this remains an emerging trend. Polycarbonate, at 1.59-index, is currently the fastest growing lens material, in terms of sales—due, at least in part, to its price, which, at retail, is only slightly higher than that of conventional plastic. Its combination of cosmetic and safety benefits also helps. That said, sales of the material have been hurt in recent months by a supplier’s decision to cease production of flat-top 28s in the material last spring. Sources have told 20/20 that production should be back online by the end of this year, but the product may be sold at a higher price point.

Until then, however, experts believe the growing popularity of “higher-index” lenses may finally fuel the growth of the entire high-index category manufacturers have expected for more than a decade.

“I’ve been surprised at the level of sales at retail of late, given the economy,” adds Woythaler. “I mean, looking at the stock market alone, the general public has to be scared to death. Yet, we’re making eyewear patients have to be paying $450 or $500 for. Patients clearly want the thinnest lenses possible.”

the lens list

AOSOLA TO RELEASE TEFLON A-R AOSola in partnership with DuPont Fluoroproducts will release a newly developed premium ophthalmic anti-reflective lens coating using DuPont’s Teflon brand. Sola’s high-performance Teflon EasyCare lens coating will be officially released next month, initially in conventional plastic, with plans to add polycarbonate, Spectralite mid-index and Transitions shortly thereafter.

SHAMIR EXPANDS PICCOLO LINE Shamir Insight has expanded the availability of its Piccolo short-corridor progressive line with the release of the Piccolo SuperLite 1.60 high-index plastic lens. With a minimum recommended fitting height of 16mm, the Piccolo SuperLite is available in a prescription range of +7.00D to -11.25D, with an Abbe Value of 42.

VISION-EASE LICENSES POLARIZED TECHNOLOGY Vision-Ease Lens has reached agreement with Wintec International Japan and Optical Ventures to license its proprietary technology for polycarbonate polarized lenses. The lenses feature a patented design enabling them to be made “extra-thin without fear of damaging the filter or compromising optical performance,” according to Vision-Ease. Under the terms of the agreement, Wintec and OVI are granted the non-exclusive rights to use the technology in the manufacture of non-prescription polycarbonate polarized lenses in return for a royalty payment to Vision-Ease. Vision-Ease has been producing and selling polarized lenses under the SunRx brand since the early 1990s.

SLC EXPANDS SHOOTERS Specialty Lens Corp. has expanded its line of Shooters polarized lenses. The tinted polarized filters address the needs of skeet shooters, trap shooters, hunters and other sportsmen, according to SLC. Shooters are now available in eight polarized shades: orange, violet, red, blue, green, yellow, brown and gray. Conventional plastic Shooters are available in plano, single-vision, D-28, D-35, 7x28, 8x35 and progressives. High-index 1.56 plastic Shooters are available in: single-vision, D-28, D-35, 7x28, 8x35 and progressive.

ESSILOR EXPANDS COMFORT Essilor of America is now offering its Varilux Comfort progressive in Next Generation Transitions Brown. The new lens is available with Essilor’s Crizal A-R coating.

NASSAU RELEASES PRODIGY Nassau Laboratories has released a new progressive lens called Prodigy. The lenses are available in conventional plastic, polycarbonate and Transitions.