It was on 16th August 1849, that is to say 160 years ago, that the Association Fraternelle des Ouvriers Lunetiers was set up in Paris. In the 1870s three factories were established in the Meuse region:
- Saint-Mihiel: manufacturing frames
- Ligny-en-Barrois: La Compasserie (manufacture of optical instruments and drawing equipment in wood)
- Ligny-en-Barrois: Les Battants (manufacture of optical lenses)
To understand the circumstances that gave rise to the birth of this association remember that the previous decade had witnessed amazing upheavals with the arrival on the manufacturing market of the steam engine, the basis for the creation of factories… and of the first railways.
Fig. 1: The Saint-Mihiel plant
Until then, France had been mainly made up in equal parts of a people of peasants and craftsmen (not counting a few factories, forges and mines). There were massive new requirements for labour to work the factories, leading to the creation of a new class, still in its early stages, the working class. This was the root of the unrest that was to result in the “1848 Revolution”.
Our good spectacle-makers did not wish to compromise their freedom by becoming factory workers. Under the guidance of a man named Muneaux, they were attracted by the encouragement given by Louis Blanc’s new government for the creation of associations of craftsmen (or cooperatives), which would benefit from facilities in their establishment and would receive subsidies.
These so-called “fraternal” associations could thus set up autonomous companies, able to buy and sell… and thereby make profits which were used to set up mutual funds (almost 100 years before the arrival of the Social Security system), to distribute dividends (which acted as pension funds as they were accumulated throughout a career) and also to increase the company’s capital in order to consolidate and encourage expansion.
Fig. 2: Ligny-en-Barrois, The Société des Lunetiers plant
It was thus that our craftsmen, working in spectacle parts, brought their project to fruition on 16th August 1849 under the name of a fraternal association and began operations. But on 15th September 1849 an official decree on labour was published, which specified,
Article 5: …associations of workers must be set up based on the principle of “fraternal solidarity, such that they can acquire, as they develop, a joint, inalienable and ever-increasing capital”.
For our spectacles workers there was one word too many, “inalienable”, because this resulted in dispossessing them of the accumulation of capital, not counting their contributions.
In order to ensure their freedom and competitiveness a decision was taken in 1852 to give up the advantages offered and to choose, under the new name of “Société Industrielle & Commerciale des Ouvriers Lunetiers” a commercial form of company. This was indeed unusual in their specific case, but it was closer to the cooperative system. 100 years later it took the name of ESSEL. This was a partnership (in terms of the three managers, who were active partners) and a limited partnership (in terms of the other partners who were sleeping partners) it being specified that it was a company with variable capital (sic!).
Fig. 3: Ligny-en-Barrois, La Compasserie
This was the first demonstration of their flexibility in adapting to regulatory or economic restrictions, along with their will to maintain the community spirit and the values attached to it. It is thanks to this unfailing will that the company has succeeded in the rare feat of surviving over all these decades.
Up until the merger in 1972 with SILOR (Société Industrielle des Lentilles Organiques Rationnelles) the founding principles, with justified adaptations, were always maintained:
- Firstly, capital was not to depend on external shareholders but was made up of a gradual statutory contribution from employees voted as partners.
- All decisions were taken by direct vote (one person, one vote) or by representatives elected on an annual basis. This was the case for the three managers, the Supervisory Council, for the admission or promotion of new partners, investment budgets, etc.
- You were supposed to join for life… and this was indeed the case, with only a few rare exceptions. Which meant the maintenance of human values:
- The right to information
- Equality of chances
- Internal promotion, etc.
Fig. 4: Ligny-en-Barrois, Les Battants
But after 1967, under the effect of globalisation, it became clear that the needs for capital injection, market conquest and the scale of research were essential. This is why the partners voted by near-majority for the merger with SILOR. One of the conditions of success was that SILOR managerial staff joined with those from ESSEL, to ensure that all the great values of the past could be maintained. ESSILOR can be proud of its origins!