The Steak behind the
By Tom Demerly.
This About Our Reviews First
The gates of heaven for those who appreciate high technology
and state of the art design:
Oakley Headquarters, Foothill Ranch, California.
In our society brand icons are more identifiable
than religious symbols. If you doubt it ask a group of teenagers
to correctly identify a Nike Swoosh and a Star of David. In
the often bizarre and convoluted world of brand identity the
only thing many brands have going for them is their name or
This is the story of an exception.
Forbes Magazine recently named Oakley to their prestigious
list of Top 500 Brands. But it is technology and perfromance,
not designer label cache', that gives the Oakley brand its
This company invented a product category.
Perfected it. Dominated it. Defined it. Set their own standards
for the industry, then went forward to exceed all their own
standards leaving their so-called "competitors"
in a swirling vortex of obsolescence.
In 1975 an eccentric California man noticed the shape of a
closed hand is not round. Setting the stage for things to
come he invented his own vernacular for the shape: Oblicular.
O-Grips motorcycle grips were born. And so was Oakley.
Jim Jannard started Oakley as a company that solves problems
with technology, common sense and sideways thinking. Jannard's
prodigy follows the dictum of Louis Sullivan, who deemed that
"Form Follows Function". Frank Lloyd Wright changed
this phrase to "form and function are one," using
nature as the best example of this integration. In concert
with this philosophy many Oakley designs resemble something
anatomical born in nature: an extension of the skeleton, or,
in fact, an exoskeleton. Oakley has improved on nature, stretched
the limits of human vision to operate comfortably in high
winds, water, extreme temperatures and glare under all lighting
There are 117 seperate patented technologies in one pair
of Oakley M Frame glasses, even more in this new, super
sophisticated pair of Oakley X-Metal M frames.
If there is irony in Jannard's (and Oakley's)
legacy it is that the popularity and visibility of the brand
has, for many, eclipsed the credibility of it's sophisticated,
unique and elegant technology.
That is a shame. Oakley is about technology so sophisticated,
so subtle but far-reaching and revolutionary that most of
what Oakley has developed did not even have a word to describe
it before it existed. Unobtainium. Polaric Ellipsoid. Earsock.
Plutonite. XYZ Optics. O Matter. X Metal. Earstem. Nosebomb.
These words describe a few of the mysterious, subtle and elegant
technologies incorporated into all Oakley eyewear designs.
One Oakley eyewear style employs 117 patents. That's one pair
of glasses. More than 600 Oakley patents and 800 trademarks
have been born in Oakley design bunkers, often behind a veil
of secrecy not unlike a commercial Area 51.
Oakley's competitors are so far behind that Oakley "licensed"
(kind of) some of their older technologies, no longer used
in current eyewear models at Oakley, to companies like Bausch
& Lomb. Several years ago Oakley's "Arc of a Cylinder"
lens geometry (used in the old Blade and Razor Blade glasses)
was discovered being used by Bausch & Lomb in their Killer
Loop sport glasses. The technology was already Stone Age by
Oakley standards, but represented cutting edge at Bausch &
Lomb. Oakley had moved on to the revolutionary Polaric Ellipsoid
Lens Geometry. In fact, Oakley never actually granted permission
to use the technology. "We basically discovered they
were using the technologies and after a long, drawn out legal
battle- Oakley won outright the fact that we owned the patent
to the optics. They had to pay us for major royalties, potential
lost sales, potential future sales, and everything else in
the book we could throw at them. We never actually said yeah,
go ahead and use the technology." Said Darrel Weaver
This frame from an Oakley test video depicts impact testng
on a mannequin.
Oakley lense exceed the Federal Standard for industrial
The new Polaric Ellipsoid Lens Geometry refers
to an extremely complex curvature of the lens relative to
the eye. No other optical company has anything like it. The
radius of the lens is constantly changing through the vertical,
horizontal and angular axis. The lens is held by sophisticated
frame technology, at a constant distance from the curvature
of the eye, matching its radius such that refocusing on moving
objects, refraction of entering light, and other visual factors
are all optimized. The concept mimics the natural nictating
membrane on sharks, cats and other predators that deploys
over the eye for protection during an attack. It provides
a level of visual armor that exceeds the federal standard
(ANSI Z87.1) for industrial safety glasses. At about 1/3 the
weight but many times the optical clarity. At the same time
these Polaric Ellipsoid lenses reduce aspherical distortion
to nearly zero. Sophisticated lens tints not only facilitate
vision, they improve it by tweaking light frequencies and
altering the perception of what you are seeing- or maintaining
it exactly as you are seeing it- depending on your preference.
On a practical level it means you can wear a pair of Oakley
sunglasses all day in punishing glare without getting a headache.
Your eyes are protected from ultra-violet (like any good pair
of sunglasses) but they are also protected from muscle strain
by not having to unnecessarily re-focus to correct for imperfections
in the lens. If debris flies into your eyes; shotgun pellets,
gravel, dust, water or other fragments the lenses stop it.
Bottom line: The finest, highest optical standards in the
sunglass industry, unique technologies in frame design specific
to sport, incredible durability and minimal bulk and weight
that exceeds safety glass standards.
It is -30 Fahrenheit at 23,000 feet and my vision is clear
and eyes protected in fogless Oakley goggles.
Oakley technology expands the range of human vision to extreme
The sport glass market was virtually invented by Jim Jannard
and Oakley. His original EyeShade glass, called the Oakley
Light according to Oakley historian and brand manager Scott
E, (also referred to by some as the Factory Pilot) was a
mutant goggle/sunglass design that came to define the category.
Although it was originally conceived for the ski market,
it was popularized by triathletes in the early 80's. The
Oakley Light was originally only available with a black
frame. They went on to produce red, white, blue, yellow
and even a rare mint green color called "seafoam".
Its revolutionary features included a "hydrophobic"
or water-fearing nosepiece that became sticky when wet to
firmly grasp a sweaty face. The "earstems" were
interchangeable and adjustable for length. The frame incorporated
a replaceable foam strip that prevented perspiration from
running into an athlete's eyes. The shield style lenses
were interchangeable like a goggle to adapt to changing
light conditions. At one point there was even a "tear-off"
accessory so lenses could be quickly cleared of mud by tearing
away a disposable layer of lens exposing the clean lens
Triathletes were among the first to recognize the
inherit technolgical benefits of Oakley eyewear. I've
worn Oakleys in well over 200 triathlons.
While Eye Shades had a cult following
among triathletes the sport was not large enough in
the early eighties to propel Oakley technology toward
mainstream acceptance. It took an angry Frenchman
falling off his bike and an audacious American to
In the 1985 Tour de France French hero
and toughman Bernard Hinault was near the finish of
the stage to Luz Ardiden. He was wearing a pair of
Ray-Ban sunglasses with glass lenses. Hinault crashed
heavily, falling on his face, shattering the glass
lenses when the rigid wire frame broke his nose. His
face dripping in blood from shattered glass, nose
broken, he remounted and managed to finish the stage-
just barely. His facial injuries only augmented his
fearsome aura and he went on to win the '85 tour despite
the accident. The incident underscored how a seemingly
minor piece of equipment like sunglasses can nearly
cost a competitor a huge victory.
The following year an American came to the
Tour de France and won wearing revolutionary, lightweight
polymer glasses made specifically for sport. The photos of
Greg LeMond winning the Tour de France while wearing Oakley
Factory Pilots ("Lights") were seen around the world.
The concept of sport specific, even cycling specific, eyewear
was now main stream. Today Lance Armstrong continues the legacy
by using Oakley M Frame Pros and other Oakley glasses during
his four Tour de France victories. In a move of social responsibility
unusual in the corporate world, Oakley provided health insurance
to Armstrong when he was recovering from cancer after the
French team he rode for cancelled his policy.
Oakley went on to develop Blades, Razor Blades, and then a
flurry of products with bizarre names and often over the edge
appearance. Oakley's design philosophy included minimal concession
to conventional design or fashion. Oakley dictated to consumers
what the state of the art was. The styles were sometimes two
years ahead of their time, and consumer's reaction to some
was puzzlement. Oakley introduced ideas that were way above
consumer's heads, and often took time to catch on. By then,
Oakley was already on to the next level of technology. In
fact, part of the reason some other optical companies got
a foot hold in sports optics was because they were producing
styles that mimicked Oakley's obsolete designs and technologies
from two seasons ago. Consumer mentality, understanding of
the technology and tastes had just caught up to those.
Perhaps the biggest limiting factor to Oakley's growth is
that many consumers are "Too dumb to really understand
the technology in the product" according to one Oakley
dealer. Consumers initially had a tough time getting their
arms around a plastic sunglass that is $150 or more; especially
when there were similar looking products for under $50. What
people didn't understand was the exhaustive design process;
the meticulous, precise (and expensive) manufacturing processes,
costly materials and advanced technology don't come cheap.
But consumers have become educated in the benefits unique
to Oakley eyewear. The credible visibility of athletes like
Lance Armstrong, Michael Jordan, David Duval and many others
have made the brand recognizable, but what consumers are
learning is that these athletes use Oakley eyewear because
it represents a performance advantage over other eyewear
The "Geigeresque" facade at Oakley's primary
design bunker facility seen during the day.
|Oakley's impressive design and manufacturing
is not limited to their lenses but also extends to their
frames. The new X-metal frames, manufactured in their
secret desert facility, have established a number of
new sunglass technologies. X-Metals are the first 3-D
sculpted metal frame sunglass. The X-Metal series uses
titanium and magnesium to build incredibly light frames
more durable than any other sunglass.
The process includes detonation containment
bunkers where Oakley vaporizes precious metals used in coatings
and frame construction. Titanium alloy is bombarded with over
425,000 watts of power at 3,600 degrees Fahrenheit to achieve
critical aspects of the production sequence.
Simple design innovations have improved their core sunglass
offerings, the M frame. M Frame Pros are a brilliant and elegant
solution to the unique eyewear requirements of endurance athletes.
The temples (or "earstems" in Oakley vernacular)
do not hinge, they are fixed. The earstems extend nearly the
entire way around the athlete's head assuring a comfortable
but extremely secure fit. A build-up of Unobtainium where
the hinge may have been located exerts a passive spring effect,
snugging the glasses to your head. This area of the frame
is designed to reach over a cycling helmet chin strap, allowing
the cyclist to quickly remove and replace their glasses on
the fly. For triathletes this design saves valuable seconds-
the earstems never need to be deployed. The glasses can be
momentarily removed while running to dump an aid station cup
over your head without obscurring your vision with water droplets
on the lens, then instantly replaced without having to fumble
with opening the temples of a hinged glass. When some dealers
thought a non-folding glass may not be well received by consumers,
Oakley designers said "This is equipment for athletes,
not casual eyewear to fold and put in a purse".
While some of Oakley's cloak and dagger image and stealth
product development does have the feel of clever marketing
in addition to solid science, there is no disputing the results
of independent tests conducted by private laboratories.
The January 2002 issue of Private Pilot magazine, a respected
aviation industry journal, featured an expose' intended to
be the final word on empirical, independent laboratory testing
on sunglasses. The publication hired an outside lab, not influenced
by marketing or ad dollars, to conduct the research. ICS laboratories
of Brunswick, Ohio carried out a complex and exhaustive test
protocol in compliance with American National Standards Institute's
investigative procedures. For the purposes of the test eyewear
was separated into three categories: Sunglass category, Polarized
Sunglass category and Shield Style Sunglass category. Testing
for parameters such as refractive power, astigmatism, prismatic
power and prismatic imbalance the test results were conclusive
in all three categories:
Independent laboratory tests confirm Oakley sunglasses are
the best in the world in all three categories. They swept
the test. No brand came close. Not Revo, not Ray Ban, not
Oakley makes all their glasses except one (the older Frogskin)
in the U.S. There are no compromises with the lense material;
an optically pure polycarbonate called Plutonite. It is
stronger, lighter and more optically perfect than any other
optical polymer. All of the materials that go into Oakley
eyewear are among the finest available for that application.
Most of the manufacturing processes for constructing Oakley
eyewear were invented by Oakley. The design process is even
more intensive and highly secretive. New designs are conjured
in stereo lithographic computer modeling and prototypes
begin life in CAD/CAM liquid laser tanks and using point
Main lobby in Oakley's Foothill ranch facility. The
huge round louvered doors conceal an enormous wind
Martin Baker ejector seats from F-4 fighters line
the reception area for Oakley guests.
Oakley says little about what is on
the drawing board at any given time. Their headquarters
in Foothill Ranch, California is a fortress with bizarre
in its lobby. The waiting room chairs are ejector
seats from fighter aircraft. Employees wear security
badges to gain access to different areas. Most areas
are restricted from visitors. Part of Oakley's manufacturing
processes for their "X-metal" products takes
place at an undisclosed location in the Western U.S.
desert partially underground. The only markings around
the remote compound are a stylized Jolly Roger (skull
and crossbones) flag.
There have been occasional breeches in operational
security. A photo published in an industry magazine
several years ago showed an Oakley design engineer
at his work station with computer renderings on the
wall behind him. Many of the renderings were so bizarre
it was impossible to interpret their intended purpose.
One sketch showed, under magnification, an eyeglass
design with a cell phone earpiece built into it and
a depiction of data on the lens like a Heads Up Display.
Sometime after this the movie "Mission Impossible
2" featured an opening scene where actor Tom
Cruise donned a pair of Oakley X Metal glasses delivered
to him inside a guided missile fired from a helicopter.
A peek at the future from Oakley? Secret Agent Ethan
Hunt begins another Mission Impossible with new Oakley
When Cruise's character,
secret agent Ethan Hunt, donned the Oakley glasses they scrolled
his mission profile on the inside of the lens while an earpiece
attached to the temple transmitted the verbal briefing. Oakley
will not say if they are working on incorporating a Jabra
style earpiece into some future eyeglass design. As a matter
of fact, Oakley will not say what they are working on.
Oakley has earned other surreptitious placements
in mainstream media. In the recent Hollywood extreme sports/action
movie "xXx" (triple X) actor Vin Diesel plays Gen-X
super spy Xander Cage. During an assault on his arch-villain's
lair Xander Cage carries his X-ray night vision glasses in
an Oakley backpack.
In the movie "Blackhawk Down" a
U.S. Army Delta operative wears X metal glasses while conducting
a covert reconnaissance mission in downtown Mogadishu, Somalia.
The depiction, while historically inaccurate (at the time
of the Somalia operation X metal glasses did not yet exist)
is factually correct.
Elite special operations units have worn Oakley products for
years. Ultra-secret, covert long-range reconnaissance teams
wore M frame glasses equipped with clear lenses in the mid
80's. The point man, or "Scout/Observer" of the
5-man teams wore them as eye protection for moving through
dense brush at night. These highly classified Long-Range Surveillance
Teams (LRSUs) referred to them as "Scout/Observer glasses".
There were rumors of proprietary products being produced for
these secret units, some of which the U.S. would not even
publicly acknowledge. The rumors were confirmed when Oakley
revealed they were working with Natick SOF (Special Operations
Forces)-Special Projects, US Army Special Operations Command,
and Naval Special Warfare Development Group to produce Laser
Eye Protection and an alternative Assault Boot for Elite Special
I've been an Oakley customer since buying
my first pair of Oakley Lights when they came out. I've used
Oakley glasses and goggles on every continent except Australia
(haven't been there yet). I've climbed the highest mountains
on three continents with them, ran through the Sahara with
them in Marathon Des Sables, worn them in storms off the coast
of Antarctica, in the military, used them in over 200 triathlons,
3 Ironmans, Eco Challenge, Raid Gauloises, Desert Cup and
many other races. I've worn them while meeting presidents,
in the desert in Jordan where Sir Lawrence of Arabia lived,
on safari in Tanzania, while white water rafting, skiing,
snowboarding, skateboarding, parachuting and flying an airplane.
I've used these glasses for everything they could be used
for. They always exceed my expectations. This is a product
I believe in and a company I respect and identify with. No
other sport glass compares. Oakley has earned their position
as the finest sunglass in the world, as verified by independent,
empirical testing. It is a rare case of the steak being even
better than the sizzle.
I've used Oakleys all over the world in every envrinoment.
No other sport glass even comes close to their quality,
durability and performance.
While the world of brand names and trademarks
may be full of corporate identities with little reason for
respect or admiration, Oakley has truly earned their status
as a functional technology leader and brand icon. And with
whispers of outrageous ideas coming from the depths of the
Oakley design bunker there is no end in sight.
© Tom Demerly, Bikesport
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