With a family name associated with eyewear since the 19th century, the Erkers have brought back domestic frame manufacturing and placed it in plain sight.
What do you do with a fifth generation U.S. eyewear company to keep it fresh and new? Launch a domestic eyewear manufacturing facility, but not just your typical factory hidden away in an industrial park. When Jack Erker III (on right in picture opposite) and his brother Tony (left) decided to begin manufacturing frames in St. Louis, where their family’s eyewear business originally started in 1879, they chose to locate their facility front and center for the entire world to see. Copper Hinge is both an optical shop and a frame-manufacturing operation where the factory is in full view of its customers.
MADE IN AMERICA
While running the Studio Optyx wholesale operation, which manufactures eyeglass frames in Europe and Japan, some customers told the Erkers, “We would love glasses made in America.”
Listening to their customers and also inspired by the open kitchen concept trend in restaurants as well as by Fitz’s Root Beer next door, where kids of all ages can press their faces up against the window to watch root beer being made, Copper Hinge was born to let visitors see frames being made in-person.
Determined to get it right, the Erkers paid rent on their retail space in the trendy shopping, eating and entertainment district known as the Delmar Loop for two years as they pursued the long process of creating a frame-manufacturing factory. “We jumped through 10,000 hoops to get where we are,” Jack Erker III told VCPN. “There’s a whole lot more automation than there ever was before, but there are still a ton of steps that are handmade that you can’t get around. I had to buy all of the equipment and find a factory manager to re-tool the machines. Before the machines got here we had to convert the retail storefront into something that could run the machines. We hired probably four to five electricians and went back to China and Europe, translating from foreign languages. When everything was finally hooked up, it still didn’t work. I didn’t know I needed an air compressor and pipes.”
FACTORY IN A SHOP
Eventually everything worked properly, and now the entire operation runs with four factory workers and two retail opticians in addition to Erker. It has the capacity for a total of 17 factory workers. “A typical factory might need 75 to 80 machines to create one frame. We wanted to condense that, for one reason because of space issues. We have 2,000 square feet upstairs and 1,800 square feet in the basement, so we reduced the machine count to about 23 machines with a lot of robotic arms to take things from one machine to the next.”
The goal is to sell final product both in person and online. “The idea is to be able to sell online,” Erker said. “While we don’t think the brick-and-mortar retailer is going away any time soon, we see a big shift in the industry to online. The younger generation is very used to buying online, so we don’t want to lose that market.”
Still, the plan is to also establish the Copper Hinge optical shop as well as its frame-manufacturing factory as a destination for shopping in person as well as for entertainment. “Within the store, behind glass doors, you can see CNC machines and tumblers that spin, a lot of moving parts that are visible to the consumer,” Erker said. He compared the experience to the memories that are formed when kids visit a playground at McDonald’s, for example. “Everyone remembers the fun times they had at McDonald’s.”
Another unique aspect of the manufacturing process that gives Copper Hinge frames additional character is the use of wood pellets during the frame-polishing process, but they’re not just any old wood pellets. They’re made from used whiskey barrels. “We polish frames using a wood tumbler but couldn’t find a domestic wood chip manufacturer,” Erker said. “A good friend from high school owns a barbecue joint next door that uses hard beechwood from whiskey barrels, so we found a local wood chipper to chip up his whiskey barrels. The story is good for local lore,” Erker explained, adding that they now define their frames as “whiskey-infused small batch eyewear.”
After two years in the making with a sign on the store’s façade teasing that they would open soon, and with local people wondering, “Are they ever going to open?”, the grand opening took place in April 2018. “The first weekend was a wonderful spring day, and we had a line out the door to get in.”