Martin Wells eyewear is a quintessentially Australian company. Established in 1954, the company has surfed the peaks and troughs of a dynamic economy and shifting demographics. Four years ago, the Van Staveren family gained control of this brand and since then has been busily reinjecting life into the original frame designs. The result is an ever expanding collection of retro eyewear that appeals to both mature and youthful fashion-forward customers.
1954 wasn’t a great time for eyewear manufacturing in Australia. Back then, the industry was producing basic frames with limited colour selections, yet trying to compete with traditional overseas suppliers that had recovered from the war.
But along came Eric Hurst a salesman from Czechoslovakia, and Dino Zingarelli, with a mind to make a difference.
The two entrepreneurs worked for a local manufacturer before starting out on their own, in conjunction with Sidney Sinclair, a hard-nosed businessman from the United Kingdom, who was a joint founder of the men’s-suit manufacturer Anthony Squires.
Basing themselves in Western Sydney, they quickly grew their business, gaining recognition among wholesalers and practitioners, and competing with success against existing operators.
It wasn’t long before they had appointed distributors in each state and soon after the company was listed on the Australian Stock Exchange.
One of the keys to their success was the brave designs – Martin Wells wasn’t shy about producing elegant plastic frames bejewelled with marcasite stones, or ‘anodised’ frames, which consisted of a plastic front with anodised aluminium sides and brow pieces in almost any combination of colour and engraving, and with finishes that others simply could not match. They were also strong marketers, supporting their collections with stunning advertising that undoubtedly compelled consumers to spend up to two weeks’ wages on a pair of spectacles. Those were the times!
Some of the company’s biggest sellers were Super Ambassador, Envoy, 727, 747 and Mustang for gents, as well as Amorette and Spellbound for women.
GROWTH, ACQUISITIONS AND MISTAKES
As with many publically listed companies, Martin Wells embraced significant growth opportunities. In 1968, it acquired Optical Products Co – at the time Australia’s largest wholesale distributor. This was quickly followed by the acquisition of its United Kingdom distributor, M Bender Northern, in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Later the company bought its distributor in the United States, which turned out to be an expensive mistake.
The acquisitions were helping Martin Wells to grow its export market and at its peak, the company was distributing over 50% of total ex-factory sales to more than 50 countries, with markets in Asia and South Africa being particularly successful.
In recognition of its export success, the company received a Hoover Award and was described as ‘Beating the Giants’, in an article which set out its strategies and tactics to take on European manufacturers. Three export awards were won in later years.
THE TURNING POINT
The growth continued until the early 1970s when the market changed and consumers began to demand metal frames over and above plastics that had been so popular since the war.
An attempt to resist change was futile and eventually the company’s directors agreed to produce metal frames, and established a metal manufacturing plant in an effort to retain market share.
Another growth opportunity – to produce ‘Passport’ branded sunglasses – failed to yield positive results, due to insufficient marketing which rendered the company unable to compete against market leaders Polaroid and Sunoroid.
Following this decline, the Martin Wells group passed into the hands of the Adelaide Steamship consortium (in the 1980s), then to Hancock & Gore organisation (now HGL), and later to Optical Products.
TAKING THE PAST FORWARD
In 2017, the Martin Wells brand was sold to Mark and John Van Staveren, owners of Van Staveren Eyewear, based in Victoria. Between them, the brothers have over 70 years’ direct experience in the optical business and coincidentally, a familial association with Martin Wells.
“My father, Colin Van Staveren, trained as an optician and optical dispenser. In the 1960s, he started a business from home called Central Optical Co, repairing sunglasses and selling spectacles, among them frames from Martin Wells. I was one of nine kids in the family and we used to help him on weekends. Four of us went on to work in optics,” John van Staveren explained to mivision.
“With this family history, I had dreamt about owning the Martin Well’s brand so when the opportunity arose to acquire it years later, I was really excited at the prospect.”
Recently, during the COVID-19 lock-down in April 2020, John received a call from optical dispenser Martin Duke. He’d been cleaning out his shed and he’d come across some old Martin Wells frames.
“He said to me, ‘I’m sure these were from the old Central Optical Co’. Martin was the last owner of that company and he kindly sent the frame on to me.”
Named Moomba the tiny red full frame had a silver trim and was eye size 44:18.
“These days 44:18 would virtually be considered a child’s frame size,” John laughed. “Never-the-less it was beautiful and so I decided to replicate it, in a size to suit the features of contemporary wearers”.
The resulting model is ‘Duchess’, and it even has adornments, disguising the rivets, that resemble those of the original.
“Rather than marcasites, we have moulded and produced a jewellery adornment which is deep set into the frame – I’ve seen too many stones falling out of frames to go down that path,” John added.
A STABLE FUTURE
All Martin Wells eyewear is now handcrafted in China, from quality Italian Mazzucchelli acetate and distributed to optometry practices around the country, direct from Van Staveren Eyewear.
“By keeping everything in-house (aside from manufacturing), we’re able to design, produce and distribute a top quality product at a mid-range price,” he said.
“We enjoy taking designs from the original collections and evolving them to meet the styles and needs of wearers today,” he said adding that while the range has been created for multifocal wearers, younger consumers in need of single vision frames are increasingly drawn to the retro look and feel of the brand.
John explained that the major difference between the original and current Martin Wells frames is size.
“In the 50s, when Martin Wells was established, frame design and size was largely driven by 50mm glass blanks from which lenses would ultimately be cut and ground. Labs couldn’t purchase or work with lenses that were any bigger and even if they’d been able to, the extra weight of a larger glass lens would have created discomfort for the wearer. So many designers worked with the same internal eye shape and simply changed the outside edge of the frame. Today of course, we’re working with plastic lenses and we have endless options for lens shapes and sizes. And we’re also designing to meet the needs of bigger face shapes.”
Martin Wells was a giant in its time; no doubt about that… and now, it’s on its way back.
* Information about the company history has been drawn from an original article written by Neil Forbes, as commissioned by John Van Staveren. Mr Forbes was marketing manager at Martin Wells from 1967 to 1975, before becoming editor of Insight for just over 40 years – from 1975 to 2016. He died on Wednesday, 16 January 2019.
Hero image: From The Australian Women’s Weekly, November 1957.