The final statistical data for the Italian eyewear sector show a serious 44.7 percent boom in imports to 803 billion lire (e415m-$356m), with sunglasses up to 304 billion lire (e155m-$133m) and prescription glasses up to 290 billion lire (e148m-$127m). These imports continued to soar in the first quarter of 2001, by 38.8 percent.

Some 126 million pairs of sunglasses are imported every year from the Far East, and retail in Italy at 15 euros a pair, while Italy exports 51 million pairs that sell at a minimum of 60 euros a pair. Anfao, the Italian eyewear industry association, has asked Certottica, the Italian certification institute, to check that the imported glasses conform to EU norms.

Studies show that only 45 percent of the sunglasses imported in Italy, and 40 percent of those imported into Europe generally, are then sold to consumers through qualified retail outlets that are obliged to show to them proof of the product's quality and its ability to protect the eyes from the sun's harmful rays by means of the CE certification symbol. The rest is sold by street vendors and on the so-called black market. Many of these items are counterfeited copies of famous models and brands - an underground market estimated to have generated sales of 150 billion lire (e77m-$66m) in 2000 in Italy alone.

Still, the official eyewear industry has little legal room for maneuver. Importers of unsafe or counterfeit glasses risk seizure of the merchandise and fines of between 7 and 45 million euros. However, Italian government authorities are going through a bureaucratic change that make any such action difficult. Furthermore, many illegal importers have limited partnerships headed up by fictitious managers who are poor or old-aged, complicating matters.

Anyhow, the growth Italian manufacturers' sales of eyewear and accessories slowed down to 12 percent in the first quarter of this year. The final data show that the total value of Italy's production had risen last year by 15 percent to 3,280 billion lire (e1,673m-$1,438m), after taking out inter-company sales of 1,290 billion lire (e658m-$565m).

With a total volume of about 100 million pairs, Italian production of sunglasses and frames started to grow again in 2000, after two years of stagnation. Sales of sunglasses and eyewear frames grew by 24.4 percent to 3,035 billion lire (e1,548m-$1,330m), thanks in part to Luxottica's acquisition of Ray-Ban. While sales of frames increased by 5.1 percent to 1,650 billion lire (e842m-$723m), the turnover in sunglasses shot up by 59.1 percent to 1,385 billion lire (e706m-$607m). Exports showed the same imbalance, with growth rates of 8.8 percent for frames and 77 percent increase for sunglasses, contributing to an overall export increase of 27.3 percent to 2,686 billion lire (e1,365m-$1,173m).