ROLF Spectacles: Visions in Wood

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A small, family-run business situated in a small village in Tirol’s Außerfern Region, ROLF Spectacles produces hand-made, lightweight wooden and stone eyeglass frames. With loving attention to detail and bold use of innovative techniques, ROLF makes each frame a unique, one-of-a-kind piece of eyewear—and the self-confident company keeps winning awards, such as the highly coveted 2016 German iF Design Award.

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The first public appearance of ROLF Company caused quite a stir in the international optician industry. A true innovation prize awarded in Paris, the Silmo d’Or rewards the creativity and the creative spirit of eyewear design. The fact alone that the four newcomers from Tirol’s remote Außerfern Region had gained a nomination in this prestigious award in autumn 2009 was seen as a sensation. As all available funds had been spent on producing the first ROLF collection, they rented a mobile home to get to Paris, stocking up on food in Tirol before they left to further trim costs on expensive meals out.

The unbelievable happened at the prize-giving ceremony—and was beyond comprehension: They won their first Silmo d’Or Award for the ROLF “Imperator 05” model in the category “Frame Technological Innovation”. The jury was blown away by ROLF’s high standards in workmanship and innovative design—and by their skill in producing wooden eyewear completely without any metal parts or screws. First entry, first nomination, first award. That is not exactly how it works in an industry like this, which is dominated by big brands such as Luxottica. The four ROLF founders were beside themselves with joy—they went crazy on stage, shouting, yelling, laughing, and celebrating. They were in such a frenzy, the organizers had to actually interrupt the ceremony for a short while.

“When it comes to marketing, this award-giving ceremony helped us stand out from the bunch. It helped us get noticed in a crowded market,” says Roland Wolf today, smiling. “We were a bit of a novelty.” Still today, a few years years later, ROLF Spectacles continue scooping up major international design honours. Its “Anglia 94” frame won the prestigious 2016 German iF Design Award, topping a competition that drew more than 5,000 entries from 53 countries. “Sometimes we even don’t have the time to look back and reflect on what we have done and what we have achieved,” adds Roland Wolf, taking off his wooden glasses. No doubt, this man has a quirk about glasses. “At 14, I started wearing glasses without needing a prescription,” he admits. Roland Wolf is a trained optician, however, he has never worked as an ophthalmologist, “for optics is above all a technological matter to me.” He has a passion for workmanship, creative ideas—and marketing.

A Family Affair

Although Roland Wolf gave the company its name (which is a mash-up of “Roland” and “Wolf”) and developed and visioned the brand, ROLF is a complete family affair. Marija ‘Mary’ Iljazovic, who is responsible for the eye-catching design of the eyewear, has been his companion for almost 20 years – the two of them ran their own snowboard school back in the 1990s. Having worked for a successful Berlin-based eyewear producer for a few years, Wolf and Iljazovic quit their jobs around 2005, as they were not “d’accord” with the fast-paced development of that company anymore. So they decided to make their own thing with a little help from their family: Agricultural engineer Martin Iljazovic, Mary’s brother, who built the first ROLF machinery with moped brakes and a mechanical milker is the company’s production manager. The fourth in the family quartet is Roland’s brother Christian Wolf who swapped his career as an architect for becoming the ROLF marketing manager.

Entwickler und Visionär Roland Wolf in der ROLF-Werkstätte in Weißenbach am Lech

Developer and visionary Roland Wolf at the ROLF Workshop in Weißenbach am Lech

The beginnings were hard. It all started in the basement of the Wolf family home in Lechaschau, a few kilometers from today’s company headquarter in Weißenbach. This is where they began producing the first ROLF prototypes, refining their idea of what high end eyeglasses made of wood could be. Roland Wolf tried 75 versions of wood hinges before he found a design that would keep the glasses open or closed and prevent the temples from stretching. ROLF Spectacles has developed a unique wooden hinge and an innovative lens-glazing system, which allows them to produce thin, lightweight and elegant eyewear frames. Today, hinge and glazing system are patented. They soon went to the market and their innovative design was welcomed with much praise. “Upon presenting our prototypes on the first trade fair, people were thrilled. Unfortunately, all our models broke as quality was lacking because of imprecise processes then. However, people trusted in our ability to refine and optimize the production process,” says Wolf.

Production “On Demand”

At the moment, ROLF Spectacles has 50 employees. If everything works out fine, numbers are set to double over the next three years. The first ROLF Shop in Vienna was opened in spring 2015 and possible locations were inspected in New York lately. Although Roland Wolf likes the visibility and physical presence of the brand and reaching out to international audiences, his key focus is on something else. “We have built a strong brand. We produce finest eyewear out of natural materials in-house and put an emphasis on quality—even the wooden cases are handcrafted on site. This is expensive, but outsourcing the production processes is out of the question. We’d rather do with less money than exploiting the brand and allowing it to deteriorate.” The idea behind that strict principle is to create personal and individual products. ROLF Spectacles distributes its exclusive eyewear in 46 countries worldwide through 600 qualified opticians and dealers. Each ROLF spectacle frame is handcrafted “on demand” and on-site in Weißenbach. It takes a few weeks from placement of the order until the frames are in the shops, complete with their own label that has the name of the optician and/or future owner on it.

ROLF-Shop im Zentrum von Reutte, Foto: Lisa Hörterer

The ROLF Shop at the heart of Reutte, Photo Credit: Lisa Hörterer

 

In Weißenbach am Lech, where the ROLF manufacture is located, Roli, Mary, Martin and Chris as they are known around here, are still the “the young and wild ones”. It wasn’t always easy but they succeeded in the end. Moving abroad is not an option. “I might not love all people round here, but I definitely love living in Tirol,” says Roland Wolf. One of ROLF Spectacles’ company goals is to set new trends in design and to realize new ideas. There are no fashion chain stores and design academies in this remote and pristine area of Tirol they call home, Außerfern. “We are truly convinced of what we are doing in a very positive sense,” says Wolf. “The worst enemy to creativity and innovation is doubt,” adds the 36-year-old CEO of ROLF Spectacles. “People who have a negative attitude make me sick. I think that everything is possible. Although this can be exhausting sometimes to my employees. However, one thing is for sure,” explains Roland Wolf, “if ROLF creates something new, you can rest assured that it’s new.”

Learn More: The ROLF Shop in Reutte

Personalities, Shopping

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