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The Ocularist

It's an odd trade, for sure. The payoff for fifth-generation eye maker Willie Danz is the magic moment when he sees 'the breathtaking whole.' By Tracie White

April 10, 2005|Tracie White | Tracie White last wrote for the magazine about a student at Harvey Mudd College.

It took years to get to this place in the forefront of one of the world's most obscure professions. No, not just years. Let's be precise. It took generations of German craftsmen bent low over workshop tables. Painstaking hours of detailed work to get it just right. Perfectionism. Discipline passed down from grandfather to father to son. All in the pursuit of one goal: to build the perfect simulation of a human eye.

Willie Danz continues the quest--his workshop tables are white countertops in an office in a San Francisco high-rise. What else could you do as a descendant of Ludwig Muller-Uri, the German craftsman renowned for perfecting the glass eye in the 1800s in the famous glassmaking town of Lauscha, Germany--the same quaint town where Danz's forefathers learned the eye-making trade. When your father, who emigrated from Lauscha, rode the trains from one American city to the next fitting artificial eyes into the sockets of the wounded and disabled during World War II. And when the two older brothers you looked up to chose to continue the craft.

What else can you do when you can claim five generations of eye makers in your family? (His grandmother's uncle and grandfather also made eyes. His brother Ted has passed away, but his stepson runs his office in Fresno. His brother Phillip has an office in Sacramento.) It's like those firefighter family dynasties in New York City. The profession is handed down from generation to generation. No one but the black sheep does anything else.

"I guess it's in my genes," says the 54-year-old Danz, who is an ocularist--a word you won't find in most dictionaries, one that he had "a heck of a time" getting into the San Francisco yellow pages.

His goal is the same as his ancestor's: to create an artificial eye that resembles as much as possible a real jelly-like eyeball. His method: hard work and the discipline of a true craftsman. Keep your head down and perfect the parts before you can look up to appreciate the breathtaking whole.

"It's almost a calling for me. It is for most of us," Danz says, at work in his 16th-floor office. There are only a handful of ocularists in the Bay Area. There are about 20 ocularists statewide, and more than 200 across the country.

Danz once made Elizabeth Taylor-like eyes, two lavender irises that still make him smile. He made an eye for an ex-con who lost one of his own jumping from a second-story balcony during a foiled burglary. Danz has made eyes for show horses and police dogs. But eye trauma is his biggest source of business. He replaces eyes lost to BB guns, to bows and arrows, to sticks, rocks, scissors, falls, trips, tree branches, automobile accidents, baseball bats, knives, guns and screwdrivers. And, of course, cancer. He replaces eyes for some 50 children a year. About three to five eyes a week for the last 35 years. He has made tens of thousands of eyes.

Not one of these eyes can see. Danz is not a doctor. He doesn't cure blindness. His craft is to restore a damaged face, wedding science and art to re-create a window to the soul, even if the window lets in no light.

"He has a wonderful eye for precision," says 90-year-old client Gerda Cohn of Burlingame, whose left brown eye was lost to glaucoma.

Each eye is custom-made. When a client comes to his office, Danz makes an impression of his or her eye socket with the same materials a dentist uses to take impressions of teeth. He then makes a model from the mold using acrylic plastic. The iris, the pupil and the whites of the eye are hand-painted in oils onto the acrylic prosthesis. To create the appearance of blood vessels, Danz painstakingly separates the strands of a single red silk thread with a pair of tweezers, then cements them individually to the whites of the artificial eye, imitating natural patterns.

If his client has one good eye, Danz studies it. Makes a match.

Danz grew up watching his dad, Gottlieb Theodore Danz II, use a similarly detailed process, but he made artificial eyes out of glass in the method of the Lauscha craftsmen. In 1915, at the age of 10, his father immigrated to New York. During World War II, he switched to making acrylic eyes when it became difficult to get German glass. Danz still remembers his father throwing early acrylic eyes against his office wall to demonstrate their indestructibility to his clients. Willie was sent to Lauscha as a teenage apprentice. The master eye makers taught him their secrets--how to heat a tube of glass on one end until a ball forms, then use various colors of glass like paintbrushes to imitate the natural colors of the eye. He returned to America to start his trade, eventually moving to Oakland and then San Francisco.

Last summer Danz made a trip to Lauscha. He visited a glass factory, marveled at the antique glass eyes in the glass museum, saw the church where his grandfather was baptized and met another artificial eye maker, a distant cousin.

"I love the sense of history," Danz says. And he loves his job. He loves perfecting the parts. He loves making clients look whole again. Clients such as 78-year-old Harry Jarrett, who came to Danz with a gaping hole where his right blue eye used to be. Melanoma the culprit.

Danz slipped in the artificial blue eye. "Oh my goodness!" gasped his wife, Lorene, as Jarrett stared hard in a hand-held mirror, amazed and whole once again.

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