Robert J. Wallner is one of a small number of highly skilled opticians who luxury frame manufacturers and high end optical retailers trust to fabricate eyeglasses for their discerning customers. With his expert eye and a practiced hand, Wallner takes an artisan’s approach to crafting eyewear that is as beautiful as it is functional.

Wallner started his career by apprenticing with his uncle, Matty Lerchl, the proprietor of Walter Nuebert Opticians in West New York, N.J. Following his uncle’s advice, Wallner enrolled in New York City Technical College, graduating with a degree in ophthalmic dispensing.

Wallner, who is ABO and NCLE certified, then practiced opticianry in many high end retail optical shops before starting a specialty niche lab, The Cutting Edge Optical Specialties. He closed the lab in 2006 and for the next five years sold edging equipment. Having gained a better understanding of the retail side of the optical industry, Wallner returned to the lab business in 2011 and opened OptikWallner in Wallkill, N.Y., which focuses exclusively on high end specialty products.

—Andrew Karp

Karp: You operate a boutique finishing lab that only does work that other labs can’t do or don’t want to do—in other words, jobs that require more craftsmanship. What types of jobs are we talking about?
Wallner:  Complicated jobs or jobs which require special attention to detail, which typically do not lend themselves to being done in a high volume environment. These may include exotic materials such as horn or wood, or manufacturer-specific mounting techniques or supplies.

For instance, some frame manufacturers specify proprietary adhesives to mount lenses to their garnitures. Additionally, a few exclusive, high-end frame manufacturers will only supply the frame or garniture through a limited network of labs they have a working relationship with, not directly through the retailer. So I have established relationships with certain frame manufacturers through which I get training and special products and tools that enable me to work on their products.

Another example of jobs that require more craftsmanship are lenses, particularly rimless mountings, which have hand-cut details, mounted stones, facets or engravings.

How do you size up each job and decide how to optimize the performance and appearance of each lens?
Using the experience gained from many years of processing the more difficult jobs, it is possible to “predict” what a job will look like. Making subtle changes, such as bevel position, hole or mounting position, finish or pin bevel width and angle, are just a few factors that can be individualized to optimize the appearance of the job.

What are some of the more exotic or challenging jobs you’ve done?
One special job involved a Tom’s Design frame which I made the lenses relief-cut to match the contour of the temples. Then I inserted by hand a 14-karat gold wire to the very edge of the lens to simulate where the lens would be if it was not relief-cut.

Another involved a Pure Eyewear frame, which had a single piece of wire threaded through the lenses. Then I added a facet and Swarovski crystal to the outside corner for embellishment. I crafted it entirely by hand, including the forming of the frame.

I also worked on another Tom’s Design frame where I cut a “crevice” into the lens. The inside of the crevice is hand painted to accentuate it. I mounted a Swarovski crystal in a tube bezel setting (creating jewelry is also a hobby of mine) and glued it into an accommodating hole near the bottom of the crevice.

Using today’s automated lens finishing equipment, almost anyone can successfully edge, drill or bevel a lens, even if they have minimal training and experience. Where does craftsmanship come in?

Just as every snowflake and fingerprint is unique, so is every pair of spectacles. Every change in Rx, PD, eye size, lens and frame geometry, lens material, etc., changes the dynamics of the finished eyewear. Being able to visualize the finished product, before the lens ever touches the grinding stone, and making appropriate changes in bevel positions, etc., is the first factor in the broad term of “craftsmanship.”

The completed job is ultimately “graded” by the final assembly. Aside from very obvious factors, such as an eye wire not being fully closed and perfectly lined up, the final bench alignment truly defines “craftsmanship.” Bridges must not be skewed, end pieces must have exactly the same angle to the frame front and temples must be perfectly parallel and in proper “case alignment.”

As an experienced professional, how might you use a stock edger or other piece of lens processing equipment differently than a novice might use it?
I rarely use the “automatic” setting of my finishing equipment. They are good for 90 percent of jobs that an optician might typically encounter, but that other 10 percent is where specialty or niche labs come in.

What tools and techniques do you rely on most?

Because of the specific nature of my market, I tend to use mostly tools made by or for the frame manufacturer. This more or less contributes to the “one off” personality of a niche lab. For instance, there is a particular frame manufacturer that has devised a drilling system that prevents the user from creating a slot of the improper length or diameter. The slot dimensions are critical to the overall integrity of the finished product.

I’ve designed and built several jigs. The jig I use most often facilitates proper bench alignment characteristics including face form (wrap), tilt, temple length and basic adjustment. Each and every pair of completed eyewear leaving my shop must be adjusted to fit this jig prior to being shipped. The end goal is that the retail optician is only required to do minute final adjustment, particular to that patient.

What types of jobs should an optical retail store or independent eyecare practice process in-house, and what types of jobs should they send out to a specialty lab?

If an optical retail store or independent eyecare practice employs someone who has the passion, artistic ability and/or motivation to process the specialty jobs, and has the proper equipment and tools, they certainly can and should process the jobs in-house as much as possible.

With that said, jobs that probably should be sent to a specialty lab could include special frame materials such as those made from natural horn, wood, rimless frames that utilize proprietary mounting systems, lens embellishments and some peculiar tints. It is difficult at best to maintain the skill to do these jobs correctly if they are not done on a regular basis. Being in a specialty lab allows me to process many of these jobs on a regular basis, which helps sharpen my skills.

Processing extremely customized and expensive lenses may also not be worth the risk for the retail shop. I have processed many jobs for clients that simply would not have been worth risking having even the first breakage, either in terms of expense for the replacement lens, or in time lost to obtain a replacement lens.

What advice would you give to someone starting out in the finishing lab business today?

Equipment is a necessary expense, and it should be chosen less by its price tag and more by its intended or required present and, within reason, predicted future capabilities. However, it’s important to be realistic in your business plan. No lab will ever be everything to everyone. Purchasing equipment with capabilities that will never be utilized is a waste of financial resources.

It’s also important to understand that although there are many opportunities in mass-produced eyewear, they may not be as satisfying as the less apparent niche opportunities, of which there are also many. So I’d advise them to take the road less traveled. ■