Like many other small manufacturers across America in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the tool-making company Randolph Engineering faced a stark choice: It could adapt, or die.
Founders Jan Waszkiewicz and Stanley Zaleski had launched the company in 1972 as an optical machinery factory.
Six years later, they saw tough times ahead and chose to reinvent Randolph Engineering as a maker of high-quality sunglasses.
“They decided that they needed to do something, or else they were going to be out of business,” said chief executive Peter Waszkiewicz. “There wasn’t going to be enough tool work
Today, Randolph Engineering remains a small business, but its products are on display to millions as popular eyewear for characters in movies and television shows.
“The biggest hit was ‘Mad Men,’ ” said Mary Waszkiewicz, the company’s marketing manager. Its sunglasses appeared on actor Jon Hamm’s face for the first three seasons of the popular show.
“Everyone wants to look like Don Draper,” she said, referring to Hamm’s character.
Randolph Engineering glasses have enjoyed their share of screen time in movie theaters, as well. Tom Cruise wore Randolph’s aviator sunglasses in April’s “Oblivion,” a post-apocalyptic action movie. Ben Kingsley wore Randolph shades in “Iron Man 3” in May.
For many years, the company produced sunglasses exclusively for military pilots. In the 1990s, Randolph Engineering slowly began to sell sunglasses to retail customers. Today, tucked down a side street among the restaurants, stores, and office buildings in the town of Randolph, the company’s sunglass factory makes more than 500,000 pairs of glasses a year, Peter Waszkiewicz said.
“People are going to buy our product because they like our story,” he added.
Hollywood star power has also given a boost to the brand as it competes against popular higher-end names like Ray Ban and Oakley, both of which are owned by the Italian sunglass giant Luxottica.
But Randolph is still a very small player in a big industry that generated $3.2 billion in sales last year. The company projects sales of as much as $20 million this year, up from $8 million in 2011.
It has added 24 jobs in recent years, building the workforce to 60 employees.
Randolph counts on its distinctive style to make an impression in the minds of consumers. The straight-back sides of many sunglasses, for example, were created because they are easy to put on under a helmet, harkening back to the company’s military history.
Randolph’s sunglasses range in price from $129 to $349 a pair, but they all start with imported wire bent into frames.
But military pilots probably don’t have much use for 23 karat gold-plated sunglasses, one of the finishes available for many of Randolph’s styles. The company’s glasses range in price from $129 to $349.
No matter what an individual pair costs, all Randolph Engineering glasses originate in the same place. A machine in the factory begins the process by bending imported wire into eyeglass frames to fit individual lenses. It can make up to 2,000 frames a day.
Then, employees solder hinges and other small parts to the frames, working their fingers deftly around red-hot machines.
Workers add the sides, or temples, to the glasses, while others use a machine that laser-cuts glass and polycarbonate lenses to fit different frame shapes. The entire cutting process takes just 17 seconds.
Plated frames are washed and polished in sudsy, round tubs that contain rough or smooth stones, depending on whether the glasses need a matte or a shiny finish. Skilled workers, some of whom have been employed by Randolph for 25 years, complete each step of the manufacturing process.
“It’s unusual in the eyeglass industry to be able to achieve that level of being made in the US, just because of the specialized material and tools, and it’s hard to find skilled workers,” said Marge Axelrad, executive director of Vision Monday, a trade publication.
No more than 4 percent of sunglasses are manufactured in the United States, said Steven Kodey, senior director of industry research at the Vision Council, which represents optical industry suppliers and manufacturers.
That’s a dauntingly small slice of a big business, but customers are sometimes drawn to companies like Randolph and their sunglasses specifically because the products are made in America.
Michele Zuccala, owner of the Boston optical shop South End Eye, said customers often come in looking for famous-brand sunglasses but leave with a pair from a lesser-known company like Randolph.
“People like the fact that we have a local company, something made in the USA,” she said. “There’s a lot of buzz on them.”
History of Randolph Engineering
1972 Randolph Engineering founded as optical tool and machinery factory.
1978 Company starts
1982 Randolph wins first
1990 Company diversifies
into markets for precision shooting, law enforcement.
2008 Firm focuses on lifestyle, optical retail markets.Gail Waterhouse can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @gailwaterhouse.