Bespoke eyeware in Kent


A couture eyewear service gets you a frame that perfectly fits your face in the colour and materials you chose, with the lens that works for your lifestyle – Buchanan Optometrists in Snodland shows how it's done

Eyes right

A couture eyewear service gets you a frame that perfectly fits your face in the colour and materials you chose, with the lens that works for your lifestyle – Buchanan Optometrists in Snodland shows editor Sarah Sturt how it’s done

Let me share a wonderful phrase with you, one that will avoid you ever having to say the words ‘getting older’ again: try ‘the acquiring of wisdom’ next time.

This was tactfully directed at me when I queried why my eyesight, lasered to perfection in 2007, wasn’t quite so sharp six years on.

“It’s merely the acquiring of wisdom, Sarah, it happens to us all,” said optometrist Alisdair Buchanan as we discussed my tedious juggling of the various pairs of low-prescription specs I now seem to have dotted about my person to help me drive, read, work … but not yet wear all the time.

Surely that would involve confronting the dreaded idea of vari-focals and besides, I’d look terrible in specs. As for the former, I now only need one pair of glasses, not half a dozen (more of how later) – and you can judge the latter for yourselves.

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The important thing is that I actually love, and enjoy wearing, these glasses – I love the colour, shape, that cute upward flick and the little silver dots on the sides.

But then these are no ordinary frames, they are hand-made, bespoke couture – and I can prove it: discreetly engraved on the inside of one of the arms are the words: Tom Davies for Sarah Sturt.

The journey to uniting me with my personalised designer frames started with a call from Alisdair: had I heard of bespoke eyewear (no) and did I want to find out more (a resounding yes).

The award-winning practice he set up more than 12 years ago in Snodland proudly bears his name and it really is as different from your average high-street optician as you could possibly imagine – a difference that was swiftly recognised by the industry.

Buchanan Optometrists holds the distinction of being the only optician that’s been shortlisted for every single category in the annual Optician Awards from 2008 onwards, when they were first nominated. They’ve won everything from optometrist of the year to premium lens practice and as we go to press, are eagerly awaiting the 2013 results (with nominations in six categories, including the Vision for Life Award).

The practice occupies the site of a former Co-op, which Alisdair had gutted then designed and fitted out by a retail design company who do work for Harrods, Selfridges and bespoke hotels.

It’s light, spacious and very, very stylish – and thanks to its retail past also enjoys a prominent position on a crossroads so you really can’t miss it.

As well as a design investment, a huge investment was also made in equipment. “We wanted to be one of the best in the UK,” says Alisdair. “And the investing continues, because you have to keep up to date, and ahead.”

He adds: “That’s what I really enjoy, looking into the latest technologies, the latest frame designs and materials and using them, because we should be using the latest products – they’re always going to be the best as they are based on years and years of research.

The process involves travelling worldwide to trade fairs and is leading increasingly to designing frames here in Snodland. “We had a patient this morning who hates everything she’s tried on, so I said – let me design something for you from scratch,” says Alisdair.

All this investment soon showed results. “Our customer base grew fairly quickly because people started to hear about us and the difference in the service we were offering was such that people were recommending us – and that has continued,” he adds.

“We’ve seen a huge spurt in growth in the last 12-18 months, which has been surprising given the current economic climate. There are a lot more people wanting something a bit different, and wanting the care that we offer.”

Buchanan’s now has just under 10,000 patients – from as far afield as Switzerland and Nigeria and all over the UK – most of whom have come through recommendations. They include several A-list clients, who appreciate the personal touch, not to mention the chance to own a pair of solid gold frames with buffalo horn sides, for example (pictured – and kept under lock and key in the practice). Sheer understated luxury.

Alisdair, who is from Bearsted, where his parents still live, went to school in Cranbrook and at Maidstone Grammar, studied in Bradford to become a dispensing optician, did a degree in optometry at Manchester, then a year working in practice in Kent and a year working for other opticians.

“But I found there just wasn’t the care that should be given to patients, it was more commercially rather than medically oriented, and that wasn’t what I wanted to do,” he explains.

“I wanted to do the best of everything – from the eye examination to the spectacles – and the only answer was to start my own practice. I found an existing practice in Snodland that had been around for 40 years and took that over in 1999, then in 2001 we moved into the new premises here.”

And ‘here’ is where my journey begins – initially, rather startled to find that I have been ‘researched’ and Alisdair knows a fair bit about me already, but he wants to know more. What is my lifestyle like, my hobbies, interests, and just how long am I at my laptop every day?

This creates a ‘personal vision profile,’ which makes so much sense I wonder why it’s not done everywhere. My new lenses will therefore provide ‘excellent correction for both reading and looking at distant objects, including when driving, working out (my gym classes) and undertaking outdoor activities (gardening).’

I am also promised that there will be ‘fast and easy switching between far and near vision’ which, as those of you doing that juggling act with different pairs of glasses will appreciate, is not just an issue of comfort, it’s essential.

“The personalised Q&A that every patient has is something we’ve always done – it’s really important to know what the patients do so that you can customise their prescription and frame,” explains Alisdair.

“For example, if you’ve got someone who is doing loads of sports every day, then you can’t put a frame on them that’s going to get in the way. So you need to look at different aspects of a patient’s life to get the right answers and a complete picture.”

Next step is the eye examination (very firmly not a sight test), available at different levels and price structures, with the Platinum Ocular Health Examination – “which does everything” – coming highly recommended.

Alisdair explains: “We perform all the scans that are necessary, the equipment we use isn’t available in most places except in hospitals and it allows us to look at the back of the eye in a lot more detail, to monitor the transmission of the information that’s going into your eye more accurately so that if there is anything developing we can detect it and do something about it much sooner, to preventing loss of sight.”

In my case one of the platinum-level tests revealed early glaucoma, which I wouldn’t have known about until I experienced a marked loss of field – typically a 40-50 per cent damage to the nerve before it’s detected. I am now receiving the appropriate treatment, but I wouldn’t have known I needed help had I not had the examination.

Next step is the fun bit – choosing the right frames for my face shape, colouring, lifestyle and personality. As Alisdair says: “It’s the only thing you wear every day of your life, so it’s very important to get the frame right.

It’s also the stage he most enjoys: “I love bespoke – it’s doing the best optometry I can and creating the best bespoke frames for my clients,” he beams.

We actually end up with the first pair Alisdair picks out, which apparently is quite common (but he is rather good).

However, I certainly am spoilt for choice with the designer options set out before me, not just Tom Davies but others such as Lindberg (sleek, minimalist Danish design) and even beautiful frames made from layers of wood. 

My face is measured in every different direction (especially that all-important fitting on the bridge of the nose) and to a fraction of a millimetre. The details of the frame are then passed from the designers to the technical team, who turn the images into 3D technical drawings.

Production of two frames then begins, one as a test frame made from cheap acetate to make sure the dimensions are correct to the technical drawings and one the actual frame I receive once it’s passed the strict quality control.

The acetate is next moulded and cut to the shape and design of my frame and the sides are produced based on the technical drawings. This is followed by polishing the frames by hand, several times and with finer and finer waxes (similar to those used by jewellers), giving the finished product a beautiful depth of shine and colour.

The final checks are made to see that all the measurements of the frame match those taken when I was in the practice, followed by a final quality control. 

Experts at Buchanan’s laboratory Hoya calculate the best options to produce my lens and manufacturing begins with a blank piece of material called Eyas 1.60, which is a thinner, stronger lens than normal.

This is placed in a freeform generator which uses a diamond cutter to make the curves on my lens which are required for my prescription. The process from the initial calculations to production of this first ‘semi-finished’ lens takes about two days.

The design team then, over the next 24 to 48 hours, design a template for my frame, which includes hundreds of measurements that need to be calculated to produce my hand-made couture frame.

To complete the personalisation, you can have your name, or anything else you would like, discreetly engraved on the inside of one of the arms.

The process isn’t fast – about eight to 12 weeks for a couture frame - but given all the many stages involved, you wouldn’t want it to be. You can also expect almost daily emails updating you with progress, which makes it all the more personal and builds the excitement.

It’s not cheap either – you’re looking at £1,000 upwards for bespoke frames, rising to around £1800 with the platinum eye examination. And the sky is the limit if you want to go for something truly lavish, but of course there are plenty of ‘normal’ frames as well, you don’t have to go couture.

Alisdair has several families of two or three generations all needing glasses, with different members having different requirements and different budgets.

This is personal, non-pushy, top-of-the-range service at its best, all happening right here in Kent. Buchanan Optometrists would certainly get my Vision for Life vote.


Buchanan Optometrists Limited

56 Malling Road

Snodland ME6 5NB

01634 240645

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