December 3, 2021

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The Gallic Allure of Jacques Marie Mage Sunglasses

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When Jerome Mage was starting his sunglasses line, in 2015, no one wanted to invest in it. Its name, Jacques Marie Mage, was a mouthful, they said, and the eyewear market was already saturated. Also, Mr. Mage’s designs — thick, substantial, with an architectural heft — went against the prevailing minimalist look of the day. Oh, and they were very expensive.

But Mr. Mage has a track record that allowed him to ignore those critiques and soldier on. After all, the Frenchman has spent the better part of two decades in Southern California; it’s there he built a career designing eyewear for labels like Spy Optic and Arnette. In fact, for him, glasses are less occupation and more obsession: He owns more than 1,000 vintage pairs.

“I remember when my brother came home wearing a pair of Vuarnets,” he said one morning in his studio in the quaint courtyard of the Granada Buildings, a Spanish Colonial Revival complex in the Westlake neighborhood of Los Angeles. “He was 15, I was 10, and I was like, ‘Wow, what are those?’”

As a design object, sunglasses sit at the very intersection of Mr. Mage’s greatest passions. “I studied sculpture and product design in Paris, so I wanted that sort of physicality,” he said. He wanted to create something that, like clothing, served as a vehicle of self-expression.

“What I love about eyewear is it’s an incredible, sensual object, when you think about it,” said Mr. Mage, 47. “You slip it over your nose, it’s the first thing that people see. It defines your face.”

Today most sunglasses come from just a few conglomerates, making Jacques Marie Mage a rare thing: an independent label focused on hand-craftsmanship. It specializes in classic silhouettes — aviators, cat-eyes, wayfarers, wraparounds — and injects them with a sense of cinematic allure, a nod to its Los Angeles roots.

The frames come in chunky, sturdy cellulose acetate or aerodynamic, streamlined titanium; the lenses range from translucent tinted blues or yellows to impenetrable, aloof black. Many are punctuated with a sexy flourish of sterling silver hardware and barely noticeable details — a smoothed edge here, an embossed groove there.

As such, they conjure mental images of style icons of yore, particularly of the Old Hollywood and French New Wave ilk: McQueen, Delon. Many are named accordingly, like the Yves, the Jagger and the Seberg.

The company works with manufacturers in Italy and Japan, which use machines that date back to just after World War II. These machines require plenty of adjustments, and if that yields frames that are less precisely cut than mass-produced ones, that suits Mr. Mage just fine. “The imperfections reveal a human touch and gives our frame this warm and sensual finish,” he said.

Releases are small, no more than 500, and sell quickly. Prices range from $575 to $895, with special releases costing upward of $2,000.

“They have a whiff of the past, but there’s a sleekness that speaks to the world we’re living in today,” said the stylist George Cortina, who has put the glasses on the faces of Keanu Reeves and Brad Pitt in the pages of GQ.

In February, Mr. Cortina and JMM, as the label is colloquially referred to, released a capsule collection of two frames, produced in quantities in the low hundreds. They sold so well that in June, there was another release. This month, JMM is doing a collection with the actor Jeff Goldblum, who, in recent years has become something of a clotheshorse.

Mr. Goldblum said that his stylist, Andrew Vottero, had introduced him to JMM glasses. “They’re just really gorgeous objects,” he said. “They’re distinctive but not costumey — they feel real and authentic.” Alluding to the collaboration, he added, “Andrew and I had a notion that if you were to reduce me down to one item of clothing or accessory, it would be a pair of glasses.”

Mr. Mage himself cuts a striking figure in his trim blazers, skinny ties, tight denim, rocker boots and hands festooned with silver and turquoise rings. His hair is styled in an impressive mix of mohawk and pompadour. He has a Gallic appetite for existential introspection, and he is a collector at heart: In addition to those vintage frames, he stockpiles Saint Laurent suits from the 1970s (somewhere between 50 and 60), rocker boots, BMX bikes and more.

Despite his French origins, Mr. Mage feels a deep connection to the American mythos. In September, he moved, part time, to Jackson Hole, Wyo. He had long been drawn to the beauty of the region, so much so that he created a pair of sunglasses with Yellowstone Forever, a nonprofit that supports Yellowstone National Park, and works with the Living With Wolves organization. The pandemic gave him an excuse to lay down more permanent roots.

It’s a far cry from life in Los Angeles; sightings of a grizzly bear mama with her cubs is front-page news. “She’s our Kim Kardashian,” he said, laughing. While most of his staff, which totals around 30, live in Los Angeles, he hopes to have around 20 percent in Wyoming at some point.

Sunglasses, one could argue, are a key component for a certain type of mythmaking. Mr. Mage has a hunch as to why. “Eyewear lets you become a different person,” he said. “Change your sunglasses and you change your personality.”

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