Vietnamese entrepreneur seeks to carve his niche with wooden glass frames

Tran Hien, 32, has worked hard to make the first ‘Made in Vietnam’ wooden glass frames, inspired by his Japanese mentor.

Long, 23, was frustrated that he was not able to get a pair of glasses that were comfortable, of good quality, long lasting and somewhat unique.

These are qualities people generally want in personal wear, especially one that adorns their face for most of the day, but Long was finding that such expectations were not easy to meet.

No readymade glass in the market fit him.

Then, as luck would have it, Long happened to meet Tran Hien, a man with an unusual business and passion.

Hien, whose business is called Shigeru Eyewear, makes spectacles with wooden frames, something that people might assume has gone completely out of fashion.

Very soon after the meeting, the young customer happily accepted to pay VND1 million ($43) and wait 7-10 days for a pair of custom-made glasses.

Long, like many other customers who go to Hien, wanted to get involved in the design process and was prepared to wait for the desired outcome.

Every detail on the frame is carefully custom-made by Hien. On average, the process takes him around 4 hours.

“Most of my products are handmade. Sometimes, I’m a bit shy shaking hands with people because of my calluses,” said Hien.

The Japanese connection

In 2012, Tran Hien graduated with a Graphic Design degree from the HCMC-based Van Lang University, specializing in branding. Through a friend’s introduction, he started working as a designer for a Japanese glasses maker called Shigeru.

Hien was the first man in Vietnam to get this job, Shigeru told him.

At first, Hien refused to accept a job where he had to actually make things himself. But Shigeru told him: “If you don’t try your hand at the job, you won’t be able to design something others can make.”

After working at the production house under the guidance of the Japanese teacher and mentor, Hien not only gained more knowledge about glass-making, but also learned a lot more about an ideal attitude to life.

 “One time after lunch, the staff scraped off the burnt rice at the bottom of the cooker and threw it away. Shigeru saw it and told us, next time, don’t waste food like that, just break the pieces and share them with everyone,” Hien recalled.

Shigeru’s company made glass frames, mostly in plastic, but also wood and bamboo sometimes, for export to Japan. He also wanted to open a store in Vietnam. But fate had other plans.

Hien had been with Shigeru – someone who was more of a teacher than a boss – for around one year when tragedy struck. The production house got burned down, Shigeru went bankrupt and had to return to Japan.

After his mentor left, Hien moved to Hanoi to find new opportunities.

With zero business experience, he accepted a desk job with a real estate company in Hanoi. After several months of working as a graphic designer in the marketing department, he gained new insights into sales and marketing – something that not many designers care about.

However, the sophisticated, carefully crafted glasses that Shigeru’s company used to make had left a deep impression on Hien, so after a while, he started to tinker with making glasses again.

This time, his ambition was to create unique, wooden frames. It would be his niche product.

Hien liked wood, its texture, colours and the natural patterns it carried. And even better, the longer it was used, the shinier it would get, something that cannot be said of other materials. His main focus was to create something unique, Hien told VnExpress.

It was very difficult to get this project off the ground, though.

“I tried everywhere but no one wanted to cut wood as thin as I wanted, because it requires a lot of effort with little pay,” Hien said.

After many attempts, one person who shared Hien’s determination to create made-in-Vietnam glasses (instead of Chinese ones dominating the market) accepted to work with him.

It was still not easy. Many of his first customers had to wait for a long time because Hien was occupied with office work. On top of that, some of the products were not durable. Once, he was very embarrassed when a newly delivered pair of glasses broke as soon as the customer tried it on.

Some people advised him that brand name, Shigeru, was difficult to market since it was not easy enough to read and remember. However, Hien wanted to commemorate the spirit of his teacher, who’d gladly consented to the student using his name.

For the whole of 2017, when Shigeru Eyewear was founded, just 20 pairs of glasses were sold.

The big plunge

This year, Hien decided to quit his office job, which paid him VND15 million ($640) per month, and devote all his time and effort for his company.

He studied days and nights, trying to find a way to increase the durability of his wooden frames, but that knowledge was nowhere to be found in Vietnam. Despite being “scientifically illiterate,” after months of perseverance, he finally discovered secrets to creating products that could survive even after  being thrown against the wall or dropped from up high.

Hien’s current schedule involves meeting up with his clients to get their measurements and discuss their wants. After that, he works on the design, the production process, as well as building company’s image and increasing brand recognition.

Each pair of glasses is customized to fit its owner

His company sells dozens of customized pairs of glasses per month now.

“Sometimes, design inspirations come from the customers themselves. For example, there was one customer who sells traditional clothes and wanted the glasses’ arms to be modeled like a tree branch, I found the idea very interesting and asked to keep the concept as a model for my catalog,” Hien said.

So far he has been taking wood pieces from furniture companies, aiming particularly at ebony, Siamese rosewood, and Asian rosewood.

But he’s very keen on being eco-friendly. He told VnExpress that he was looking for an NGO or other organisations involved in reforestation that he can contribute to. He said that for every glass frame that he sells, he will use part of the proceeds to help reforestation efforts. He is also considering buying seeds and planting trees on his own, Hien said.

Hien believes the " For each tree you've taken, you have to give back as much to the forest."

Expansion plans

Hien said that he is also looking for someone who can share his passion and can work on the business side of the company.

Apart from keeping the core as an artistic line, Shigeru Eyewear aims to produce standard glasses that are of high-quality and made with local materials – something that is still missing in the Vietnamese market.

He is also looking to start making and selling frames with other materials like palm wood and bamboo.

Currently, glass frames made from wood are still something very new to customers, so he wants more people to have rare pairs of glasses with “Made in Vietnam” etched on them.

Furthermore, like his beloved Japanese teacher, he hopes to find more people with whom he can share the knowledge he’s accumulated through the years.

For now, from a time when the company only had a few hundred thousand dong (a dozen of US dollars) to buy materials, and all of the earnings were invested in buying better quality wood and tools, Hien can confidently say he can make a living with the brand.

“I will spend the rest of my life for my “Made in Vietnam” glasses.”

Story by Thanh Tung

Photos by Tran Hien

By Thanh Tung