It’s a bit of a dirty word these days.
Quite right too, when an average of 75% of all ocean debris is reportedly made of it. I’m sure you’ve seen the news titles. Perhaps even Blue Planet II?
But not all plastics are created equal.
Back in the day, some of the earliest versions were made using mixtures of natural compounds such as egg, milk or latex from trees.
Our acetate frames are a good example of this. They’re made from the main component of mashed up wood pulp. Instead of petroleum, acetate is made from cellulose, one of earth’s most abundant natural compounds.
During the 2020 Covid-19 crisis, we’ve struggled getting acetate from our world-class Italian supplier. You already know this part of the story.
Rather than switching to synthetic polymers (the nasty petroleum types) we’ve been exploring various pre-war plastics to find a solution. Ones made from those natural compounds I mentioned.
This is when we unearthed “Galalith.”
An old-fashioned kind of semi-synthetic plastic, made using cow's milk.
Odourless, biodegradable and non-allergenic, this vintage plastic is ideal for making sunglasses and overcoming our supply-chain issues.
Better still, it's made in all sorts of colours of patterns, just like acetate.
It's 60 years old.
To make Galalith, you need the main protein component of milk, called casein.
(Vegans, cover your eyes.)
Mammalian milk is the best as it has the highest levels of casein. It can be from sheep, buffalo or even humans. But the highest casein levels (80%) comes from cow's milk.
It's skimmed, separated to and dried into powdered casein. Interestingly, it can be mixed with water to make a basic glue, first discovered by the ancient Egyptians back in 3000 BC.
However, it wasn't until 1870 that chemists mixed casein with other compounds to make one of the first rudimentary plastics.
To the delight of early-adopters, this cow’s milk concoction could be easily dyed to resemble expensive materials such as horn, marble and even exotic ebony hardwood.
Left to 'cure' it became very hard, perfect for machining into all types of products; Hair combs, hair-brushes, buttons, buckles, cutlery handles, knitting needles, guitar plectrums...
Even sunglasses frames.
By the 1920's, swathes of manufacturers from around the world had filed patents for the use of casein to make their own production lines of this new bio-plastic.
In fact, so many manufacturers were producing their own versions, there are more than 80 trade names officially recorded for this material.
To make these ltd-edition sunglasses, the sheet Galalith came from France.
In terms of distance, our supplier is simply the closest and best source we could possibly use, hence why we’ve used its native name.
In case you’re wondering, all of the factories in the UK who made this bio-material have long since closed. The most famous was Erinoid Ltd in Stroud.
Back in their prime, they produced a record volume of 124 tonnes of “Erinoid” plastic in the month of October, 1954. They were the last remaining UK manufacturer and closed in 1982.
So, yea, these are Galalith sunglasses.
Historically, we aren’t the first frame makers to use Galalith.
But this material hasn’t really been used in the optical industry since around the 1950’s... so you can see why we’re so excited to work with it.
At first glance, you’d think this stuff was acetate. But Galalith is denser, more rigid and slightly heavier in weight. That’s why these sunglasses still have the same look and feel as our acetate frames, just a little stiffer.
To make the frame fronts, we’ve indulged in three differently coloured sheets, each in a generous 10mm thickness. This gave enough height for sculpting the sizeable nose pads and makes each frame reliably solid.
When you hold them, you’ll know what I mean.
Characteristically, Galalith has a modest ability to be heated and bent, but only slightly. This was just enough for us to add the required curvature for fitting our polarised lenses.
However, have you noticed the frame is missing a bump in its bridge?
During prototyping, bridge-bumping was a little too harsh and created stress in the frame front. Over time, this could potentially lead to breakage, so we opted for a flat-bridge style with a recreational base-curvature of 4.
No bump, no breaks.
If it wasn’t for the Covid-19 pandemic restrictions, we could’ve driven to our supplier and literally collected the Galalith sheets in person.
Just one hour west of Paris in a place called Marville, to our workshop in Glasgow, this material really hasn’t gone far. Instead, it was posted, travelling just over 1,000 km door to door.
Easy on the planet. Easy on the eyes.
Thing is, the Galalith sheets weren’t made by the people who supplied them.
Closed factory. Vintage material.
The Galalith was actually made by the previously dominant Feuillant factory, also in France.
During mid-century, they were the European market leader, producing nearly a third (700 tonnes) of Europe’s Galalith. In their heyday, they supplied on a global scale.
Annoyingly, we don’t know the exact date of production. However these sheets were manufactured sometime between 1920 and when the factory closed in 1981.
Yep, that's a pretty large timeframe, but this material is certainly vintage and very rare. Somewhere in the region of 60 years old, this Galalith is as unique as it gets.
As Mark Twain said; "like land, they ain't making any more".
Another thing you should know.
Not only is this material vintage, but it also took a heck of a long time to produce.
Back when it was made, the Galalith mixture started as a soft gooey paste. The casein was mixed with other natural compounds and dye to give its colour.
Pushed through a mould, it was then extruded into sheets and left to cure on storage shelves; for a long time. Depending on the thickness, Galalith curing times were frankly glacial.
So at some point in the mid 1900’s, these Galalith sheets took 3 entire months to fully harden. But we reckon it was worth the wait. Those 3 months and however many decades later have made some pretty special sunglasses.
I hope you agree.
As mentioned, there were numerous manufacturers of casein-based plastics from around the world. Most of these factories emerged around in the late 1800's, and traded their own versions of the semi-synthetic material.
Below is a list produced by Jake Kaner from Nottingham Trent University, citing the many trade names and locations of the companies who made this type of material.
KANER, J. , IORAS, F. and RATNASINGAM, J. , 2017. Performance and stability of historic casein formaldehyde. e-plastory: Journal of Plastics History . ISSN 2190-9598 | See original article.