But the global economy, we now know, never sits still. In 1998's There's Something About Mary, Ray-Ban Daddy-Os like those worn by Ben Stiller came not from the Rust Belt but from workers earning $7 an hour in San Antonio.
And lately the Ray-Ban jobs have moved again. In this summer's Men in Black II, the Ray-Ban Predators that protect Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones from alien neuralyzers were molded and assembled 5,000 miles from the movie's New York set.
So here we are. The sunglasses that helped American aviators save the world from Hitler and Tojo haven't been made in America for more than two years. These days, the Ray-Ban brand isn't even owned by a U.S. company.
It's a parable of globalism, labor costs and hungry capital - but the ending, and maybe the lessons, aren't what you think.
Go buy a pair of Predators and you'll be supporting relatively well-paying jobs in a rich, industrialized country - a situation not very different from a decade ago, when Ray-Bans were proudly made in Maryland.
Exactly how a piece of military equipment became a universal fashion accessory is a story unto itself, but that's best left to the cultural anthropologists. The economic tale of Ray-Ban, on the other hand, seems to show that placing 21st- century manufacturing jobs in developed nations is not impossible, given the right product along with sharp marketing and engineering.
By 1971, when Rochester-based Bausch & Lomb built a lens factory in Maryland's Garrett County, sunglasses were everyday as lipstick, and Ray-Ban was the premier sunglass brand. The Oakland plant eventually employed 600 and, when it closed in 1997, paid an average of $9.44 an hour plus benefits.
The shutdown badly hurt Oakland, population 1,700. But Bausch & Lomb executives were lured to Texas by cheap labor. They also closed a frame-making facility in Rochester and consolidated sunglass manufacturing in San Antonio; Waterford, Ireland; and Hong Kong.
Bausch & Lomb denied chasing low wages, but the company's motives were as clear as its finely ground lenses. A Labor Department study ranking factory pay in 192 U.S. metropolitan areas put San Antonio dead last. Bausch & Lomb's San Antonio plant started workers at the minimum wage, $4.75 an hour at the time, and average pay was probably $6 or $7 an hour, economists estimated.
In fact, cheap labor was what Bausch & Lomb's marketing plan needed. The company had decided to seek profits through big volumes and lower prices, even planning a sunglass line to hawk in drugstores.
But the effort faltered. Despite a sales pop generated in 1997 by the first Men in Black, which also featured Predator shades, the money Bausch & Lomb was losing on its mass-market strategy was more than even low Texas wages could make up for.
In April 1999, Bausch & Lomb announced it was selling its sunglass business to Luxottica Group, an Italian eyewear giant built from scratch by Leonardo Del Vecchio, son of a Milanese street vendor. Luxottica had bought U.S. retailer LensCrafters in 1995 and would later buy Sunglass Hut, another American chain, and it sought top U.S. brands to stock its shelves.
The buyout's effect on Ray-Ban's San Antonio plant was a cliche of global capitalism. But what happened next was not.
Only a half-year after Luxottica took over, it announced that all American manufacturing of Ray-Bans would cease. Texas, which had swiped hundreds of good jobs from the Maryland mountains, lost them in its turn.
But not to the Third World, as one might expect. Luxottica concentrated all its production in Northern Italy and even closed Ray-Ban's Hong Kong and Ireland factories.
Was Del Vecchio crazy? Average 1999 manufacturing wages and benefits in Italy were $16.60 an hour, according to the U.S. Labor Department. That was only $2.60 less than in the United States.
Sunglasses can be made anywhere. Shipping costs are negligible. Luxottica could have moved everything to Ray-Ban's Hong Kong plant ($5.44 an hour for labor). Or, better yet, Mexico ($2.12 an hour).
Instead, Del Vecchio has returned Ray-Bans to their marketing and manufacturing past, emphasizing the brand's luxury cachet, raising prices, dumping the unprofitable mass-market business, boosting productivity with computers and keeping a close eye on quality by having smart, well-paid workers in nearby plants.
Seems to be working. Luxottica's shares have doubled since it announced the Ray-Ban buyout. Oakland ex-Bausch & Lomb workers, maybe the problem wasn't your wages. Maybe it was your bosses.
July 21, 2002|By JAY HANCOCK (The Baltimore Sun)