Refer this article as: Bennett, L., Fifty Years of Varilux in the USA: The Impact, Points de Vue, International Review of Ophthalmic Optics, N62, Spring 2010
Fifty Years of Varilux in the USA: The Impact
Not once during my four years of education in optometry school did I ever fit a Varilux lens - or any other progressive addition lens for that matter. In fact, these lenses were never even discussed as a practical correction of presbyopia during my entire four college years. And, to think, I graduated in 1980!
As I now reflect, Varilux lenses had a very direct bearing and relationship on the wonderful success of my optometric practice. As well, Varilux had a major influence on the strength of private eye care practitioners all over the United States and were one reason for the profession’s economic stability. When I think about it, there is a definite correlation among my private practice success, the amazing Varilux accomplishments, and the economic growth of the private practice of optometry in the United States.
Let’s explore that.
A little history of varilux in the USA
Efforts worldwide to develop a spectacle lens that would progress from it’s distance portion to it’s near portion without” bifocal” dividing lines have intrigued optical engineers for just about the entire 20th century. Even though records show “progressive lens” patents in the early 1900s, no practical product was ever developed and marketed until Essilor did this in 1959 as the Varilux lens.
It may surprise many, but before the product was even introduced in the United States in 1965, I had some small inkling of the lenses. My father is also an optometrist - and an inquiring one, if you please. In 1964 he had read an article about Varilux in a British magazine. So in 1964, he brought our family to Copenhagen, Denmark for the International Optical and Optometric League (now called World Council of Optometry) for a convention and family vacation. He met with Pierre Le Fahler, the Import-Export Manager of a small optical manufacturer, named Essel, the forerunner of the modern Essilor.
Making a long story short, my dad began importing Varilux blanks into the USA for his patients’ use. Talking about this lens was a common topic at our dinner table. I was but a high school student at the time; yet I was intrigued with a modern development that was still to be formally introduced in my country.
My career in optometry did not evolve as one might expect. First I went to college to become a teacher. After seven years of teaching, I made a major career change - to optometry. This was a major decision and a good one. Then came marriage and our two daughters. This deferred my entering practice until 1987.
Getting Varilux on the US market
It is only fair to report that I did get a taste of optometric practice during that time I was a full time mother. I spent a day here and there working at an HMO (Health Maintenance Organization). I spent a day here and there working for another optometrist in his office. And I spent a day here and there working for an ophthalmologist. In none of those practice settings in the early 1980s did I get one ounce of experience fitting progressive lenses. Varilux was absolutely not a lens of choice on the American marketplace in the early 1980s.
The road to success of Varilux in the USA was both bumpy and difficult. There were many reasons. To name a few, the lenses to fit satisfactorily required very accurate patient measurements (like a monocular PD - unheard of at that time); the lenses required precise fabrication, and being “off” by a millimeter could be catastrophic. The price of the product was greater than conventional bifocals and, of course, normal conservative professionals were hesitant to try something new. True, Varilux in its early days had a narrow transition zone from distance to near and was not the easiest to fit.
The profession of optometry had a difficult economic period up to 1987. The Medicate bill had become law but optometry and vision care had been left out of it. Mass merchandisers, buoyed with strong advertising of two-for-one (BOGO - buy one and get one free) were strong competition. And superstores heralding “glasses in an hour” took their toll with private practitioners. It was the consensus that there were too many optometrists for the number of available patients.
In the years up to the start of my private optometric practice, the future of the profession, the future of progressive lenses (Varilux) and my personal future looked pretty bleak.
How each overcame the problems
I do not want readers to surmise that a lens product can make the sole difference in the success of a profession or a professional. But I do want readers to believe that a sophisticated lens product can make a big difference.
Varilux - with guidance of Pierre Le Fahler who at that time took up residence in the United States - started slowly building a strong foundation for its introduction and utilization. Money was not available for a massive national advertising campaign and this slowed the process. Mr. LeFahler (rightfully) decided he and his product could impact the private practice ophthalmic community (as contrasted to mass merchandisers or optical chains) by (1) going the schools and colleges to teach the optical principles of the lens to the faculties and administration; (2) select an optometrist to serve as a professional liaison to individual practices and to state affiliated optometric societies. Rod Tahran was the first O.D. that the company hired and Dr. Tahran remains with the company yet today; and (3) by establishing a network of optical laboratories committed to precise fabrication, the key to successful dispensing of Varilux.
And LeFahler, and Essilor, made one major commitment - that the product would be sold only to the private sector of the professions, elevating it in the minds of the public and the profession that Varilux was something “special,” something above and beyond a commodity.
There was little money available for any kind of national advertising when Varilux was introduced in the United States. But there was one exception. Pierre LeFahler reasoned (and correctly so) that those who flew in commercial airlines (in the 1980s) were mostly business people and a more affluent segment of the population. They were generally adults (therefore usually presbyopic) and they comprised a captive audience for the entire time their planes were in flight.
This was before laptop computers became companions to business airline travelers. So, reasoned LeFalher, why not advertise in the magazines published by the airlines that were in the seat pockets for every passenger to read and to take? It is strange but what goes around comes around: this same idea has been advanced by Essilor in recent years as a ”new” advertising vehicle.
Early years for my practice
As I stated early, I was weaned on progressive lenses. When I finally decided in 1987 that it was time for me to start my own practice, I began looking for office space in my home community - Belmont, MA. There was none that appealed to me. Fortunately for me, an older optometrist, who was ill, agreed to sell his practice. It was not much economically speaking but the owner was a kind gentlemen loved by his small but loyal patient base.
The practice had presbyopes, of course, all of whom wore round or flat-top bifocals or had two pairs of glasses, one for distance seeing and one for near vision. No one was fit with a Varilux lens or any other progressive, or even a blended bifocal. I decided that this product would become my trademark - and it did.
Varilux became my lens of choice to all new presbyopes and, then, a bit later and with some reluctance, with patients satisfied wearing “conventional” bifocals. I sold the product more on its function (using the parable of an automatic transmission over the stick shift in an automobile) than on its cosmetic value. Of course, I did not overlook the fact that Varilux was a lens with no lines.
Like Pierre LeFahler establishing the product nationally - that is, slowly with no big splash or promotion - I sold Varilux as a special lens. My semiannual newsletter always carried a full paragraph on the lenses. I volunteered to patients that Varilux was the lens that both my parents wore. I stressed my “guarantee” to replace the lens with another if they could not adapt.
There are many reasons why my practice is one of the biggest private practices in all of New England, and Varilux lenses is one of them.
Fig. 1: My daughter, Rebecca Maida, O.D., a patient, and me.
Early years for optometry
No one will ever conclude that any product - lens or frame - made the difference in the success in the profession of optometry. Nor should they. In the profession of dentistry, the fitting of dentures (false teeth) was the “big ticket item” for the practice. When contact lenses were introduced, progressive optometrists saw them as big time products. And for a while they were.
Over time, however, the mass merchandisers and the superopticals diluted the contact lens market. Optometrists were ripe for a “big ticket product” and progressive lenses were it. Not just any progressive lens - the only one marketed by the manufacturer to private practice practitioners, Varilux.
The economics of the profession outpaced the consumer price index year after year. The profession has enjoyed phenomenal growth, fueled by getting privileges to diagnose and treat eye diseases and by dispensing sophisticated special products like Varilux.
It is amazing how three, so unrelated, things have come together in this success story. But they have, with great results:
- Varilux is the #1 selling progressive lens in the United States and Essilor, its manufacturer, is the world’s largest ophthalmic lens manufacturer.
- Optometry, the profession, has been termed by the US Department of Labor Statistics, and by much of the media, as one of most appealing health care professions in the nation.
- My practice continues to thrive with an associate and a newly remodeled building. My daughter, Rebecca, graduated from optometry school two years ago and has been with my practice since then.