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A trip to Planet Oakley

The California Experience Without a Pair of Sunglasses? No Way. Can Oakley Be the Ultimate Sunglass Experience? Well, Don't Answer That Without Proper Eye Protection.

March 16, 1997|ED LEIBOWITZ | Ed Leibowitz's last article for the magazine was on Vans sneakers

No residue of laid-back 1960s beach culture can be found in the Oakley ethos. The sun is no longer a soothing balm to the shoulders; through a frayed ozone layer, it now assaults the eyes with impunity. The bullet-safe lenses guard against gunfire as surely as the occasional pebbles kicked up by a mountain bike. In a Southern California fraught with hazards, Oakley offers a gated community for the eyes.

Oakley's advertisements cleverly sound the alarms. A retired slogan--"Thermonuclear Protection"--equated solar fusion with the kind of atomic devastation only the fittest Oakley consumer might survive. "Electromagnetic radiation is hurtling toward you at 186,282 mi per sec.," warns a more recent magazine ad. "So we'll get right to the point." Beneath a molten sphere that might be the sun, or might be an eyeball set ablaze, the reader learns about those "trillions of dangerous particles bombarding your eyes" and the immediate need for "the most advanced eye protection in the universe. Which is made, fortunately, here, on Earth. By Oakley."

These elaborate optical defenses are built upon proprietary technology--Oakley owns 55 U.S. and 225 international utility and design patents. But patents can make for dull reading, so Jannard has developed a pseudoscientific nomenclature that borrows heavily from aerospace. Oakley's lens design, which mimics the eye's own curvature to minimize distortion, is elevated to the mathematical status of "polaric ellipsoid lens geometry." The actual lens material is not just polycarbonate but "pure Plutonite." Even that squishy substance covering the earpieces and the nose-bridge of Oakley M Frames is an occasion for military-industrial hyperbole; for that unobtainable fit, "Unobtainium" will cling to the head in proportion to how much the athlete sweats. No arsenal should be without diversification. So the M Frames can be equipped with eight interchangeable lens tints, to accommodate variable lighting and climactic conditions.

The martial credo extends even beyond the core athletic line to Oakley's fashion-driven styles. The firm's $224.99 T Wires may seem delicate, but they're made from titanium, "the same industrial strength, lightweight material used in fighter aircraft, nuclear submarines and NASA spacecraft." Full Metal Jackets, more reasonably priced at $124.99, have been coated with a liquid metal to achieve the dull patina of an expensive pistol. The $33.99 carrying case is a tiny trunk of riveted aluminum. "Throw it off a building," taunts Oakley's 1996 catalog. "Run it over with a Humvee. Expose it to the gravity of Jupiter."

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The authorized Jim Jannard biography is delivered by Oakley attorney Gregory Weeks. The two met when Weeks' family moved in across the street from the Jannards' Alhambra home in 1953. Jannard was 3; Weeks was 5. "It wasn't long," the lawyer says, "before we were the best of buddies." There were water-balloon fights, jaunts to McDonald's, touch football games on Cordova Street. As kids, Jannard and Weeks were so captivated by the USC Trojans that they read the Iliad, designed Homeric costumes and waged their own Trojan War. "Jim's armor," Weeks remembers, "would be more colorful."

They also played a game of Frisbee. The object was to make the opponent miss by any means possible. Weeks tried to prevail with overwhelming power, but "Jim would do it from finesse only, to make it curve certain ways." Studying the Frisbee's hidden aerodynamic properties, Jannard fine-tuned his throws until the disc would consistently make crazy dips or leaps.

The Jannard Pharmacy was a fixture of Main Street Alhambra. Jannard's brother, Al Jannard Jr., is now an Orange County druggist, and after high school, it seemed likely that Jim would follow the family tradition. But he dropped out of the USC School of Pharmacy to roam the Southwest on a chopped-up motorcycle. He returned to his hometown with a beard and long hair. At 21, he married Pamela Pittario, an 18-year-old neighbor, in Alhambra Park. Inspired, perhaps, by Weeks' religious example, the Jannards joined the Mormon Church. They had four children, all of them named so they could share Jim Jannard's own "J. J." initials. (He and Pamela have since divorced. No longer a churchgoing Mormon, Jannard married his Oakley assistant, Bobbie Gamble.)

To support his family, Jannard sold motorcycle and auto parts out of a grubby Honda. Covering his territory, he dropped in on Weeks, who had moved to San Diego. "He'd spend two days with my wife and me," Weeks says. "He'd tell me about parts of motorcycles and cars that he would perfect." In 1975, Jannard was nearly a decade away from manufacturing a pair of sunglasses, but the entire Oakley blueprint can be glimpsed in his first commercial invention, a motocross handlebar grip.

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