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The Steak behind the Sizzle.
By Tom Demerly.


Read 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 their logo.

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 value.

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 conditions.


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 of Oakley.


This frame from an Oakley test video depicts impact testng on a mannequin.
Oakley lense exceed the Federal Standard for industrial safety glasses.

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 environments.

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 underneath.


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 do that.

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 brands.


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 Rudy Project.


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 cloud mapping.


Main lobby in Oakley's Foothill ranch facility. The huge round louvered doors conceal an enormous wind tunnel fan.


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 "post-apocalyptic/industrial" décor 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 X-Metals.

 

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 Forces.

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 Inc.
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