What is Really Behind Those Acetate Sunglasses?

sunglasses isolated on white background

Marketers love fancy words. Such words make the products they market sound better, more important, or more rare than they actually are. Take acetate sunglasses, for example. Marketers might use the word ‘acetate’ in their description despite the fact that the vast majority of consumers have no idea what the substance is. They use the word because it sells.

Makers of designer sunglasses know the power of words. Take Utah’s Olympic Eyewear. They make more than two dozen brands of designer-like sunglasses to compete with the big boys by offering comparable quality at a much lower price. The people at Olympic know that their sunglasses are every bit as good as the higher-priced competition. They also know that there is a certain segment of the population willing to spend five times as much on a luxury brand.

Marketing language is not limited to sunglasses or the eyewear industry. It is all around us. Used car lots no longer sell used cars; they sell ‘pre-enjoyed’ vehicles. Cutlery designers no longer make kitchen knives. Instead, they make triple-riveted, micro-serrated blades with ergonomic handles. Indeed, product descriptions have become mini novels packed with fancy words designed to impress.

The History of Acetate

Getting back to those acetate sunglasses, acetate has actually been around since the 1800s. The particular acetate used to make frames for eyewear was originally invented in 1865 when French chemist Paul Schützenberger first combined cellulose with acetic acid.

By the way, acetic acid is what gives vinegar its flavor and aroma. Vinegar is essentially 4% acetic acid and 96% water. Schützenberger discovered that when he mixed acetic acid with cellulose, he could create a film-like substance with certain desirable properties. Some 40 years later, Camille and Henry Dreyfus took what Schützenberger had learned and used it to produce photography film.

Their process created something known as ‘dope’, an acetate lacquer that was eventually sold to the aerospace industry where it was used as a coating for fabric aircraft wings. From there, cellulose acetate was developed as a filament yarn and eventually a thermoplastic. It is the thermoplastic form of cellulose acetate that makes up the bulk of a pair of acetate sunglasses.

Cheap and Easy

At this point, it should be understood that acetate is cheap and easy to make. It is by no means a space-age material that requires a ton of labor and financial investment to produce. Perhaps that is one of the reasons it has enjoyed such widespread adoption – ranging from thermoplastics to cigarette filters.

Maybe its relatively low-cost is one of the reasons eyewear manufacturers love the material. But there is another reason to appreciate acetate: it is resistant to most chemicals. You can put a pair of acetate sunglasses through the ringer, exposing them to cleaning products, solvents, etc. and they would not be bothered.

Injection Molding with Acetate

As a thermoplastic material, cellulose acetate can be molded into a variety of forms. Injection molding is the preferred process for transforming it into eyewear frames. A cellulose acetate thermoplastic is prepared and shipped to manufacturers as small pellets that are fed into an injection mold machine.

The pellets are heated until the material melts. The melted material is then injected into a mold where it takes the desired shape and quickly cools. Finally, the frames are ejected from the mold with either a blast of air or a set of small pins. All that’s left is to trim them.

Now you know what is really behind those acetate sunglasses you are thinking of buying. Only you can decide if they are worth the price.

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