In 2017, the value of Italy's production of eyewear rose by 2.9 percent to €3,805 million, according to preliminary data released by the association of Italian eyewear manufacturers, Anfao, ahead of the big Mido trade show in Milan.

The increase was driven by exports, which absorb nearly 90 percent of the production, as the level of the domestic demand declined, but their growth slowed down from the 3.7 percent registered in 2017 - the slowest pace since 2010. They rose by an estimated 3.2 percent to €3,731 million, and they were driven by prescription frames, up by 3.9 percent to €1,114 million.  Exports of sunglasses grew by 2.6 percent to €2,537 million.

In terms of volume, exports reached 103.4 million pairs, up by 3.3 percent. While those of sunglasses went up by 3.4 percent to 69.1 million units, exports of frames rose by 3.0 percent to 34.3 million, indicating higher average export prices for sunglasses and lower ones for frames.

Anfao estimates that the global foreign trade in sunglasses and frames increased last year by 3.7 percent to a total of around €18 billion in 2017, putting Italy's market share at 20 percent and placing the country as the second-largest exporter after China. Narrowing the analysis down to high-end models, Italy would be world leader with a market share close to 70 percent.

Europe absorbed half of Italian exports. Total exports to the region rose by 4.7 percent in 2017, with sunglasses up by 7.7 percent and frames down by 0.5 percent. All the major European markets registered positive trends except France and the U.K.

France is Italy's main export market in Europe and the second-largest worldwide. Exports to that country fell by 1.1 percent in value, with sunglasses up by 0.3 percent and frames down by 3.7 percent. France absorbed slightly more than 12 percent of all Italian exports, or 16.0 percent of total exports of frames and 10.6 percent of sunglasses.

Exports to Germany, Italy's third-largest market worldwide, were up by 8.3 percent, with sunglasses up by 6.9 percent and frames up by 0.5 percent. Sales to the U.K. declined 2.2 percent, with sunglasses down by 3.4 percent and frames down by 5.7 percent. Among other European markets, exports grew by 3.6 percent in Spain, by 7.0 percent in the Netherlands and and by 28.2 percent to Switzerland, which is increasingly serving as a logistics hub for brands.

The Americas were the second-largest region for Italian exports, representing 31.5 percent of the total. Overall exports were up by 5.3 percent in 2017, with sunglasses up by 1.5 percent and frames up by 16.0 percent. The U.S., which remains the largest single market globally for Italian eyewear, recorded a 3.1 percent increases, with exports of sunglasses down by 0.2 percent and frames up by 13.5 percent. Last year, The U.S. represented nearly 26 percent of all Italian exports, with shares of 23.8 percent for frames and 26.7 percent for sunglasses.

Exports to Asia, which represented 16.2 percent of the total export flow, fell by 4.3 percent, with sunglasses down by 4.5 percent and frames down by 3.6 percent.  Declines were registered in Hong Kong, Japan and South Korea.

However, China bucked the trend with total exports up by 18.1 percent, driven by increases of 22.5 percent for sunglasses and 7.0 percent for frames. China represented over 5 percent of Italian exports, with shares of 5.8 percent for sunglasses and 4.3 percent for frames.

Among the major emerging markets, exports to Mexico surged by 39.7 percent in 2017, by 23.1 percent to Russia, by 12.9 percent to Turkey and by 1.1 percent to Brazil. On the other hand, exports to the United Arab Emirates dropped by 14.8 percent and those to India fell by 5.7 percent.

Italy's imports of eyewear rose last year by 4.3 percent to €1,247 million, leading to a still comfortable €2,484 million trade surplus, in spite of an estimated drop of 1.2 percent in the country's consumption, based on sell-in data. Sales of sunglasses fell by 2.0 percent in value and by 3.4 percent in volume, while frames grew by 1.5 percent in value and by 0.8 percent in volume. Sales of ophthalmic lenses fell in Italy by 1.0 percent in value and by 1.5 percent in volume. The market was characterized by growth in the top-end and low-end segments, while the intermediate tiers declines, says Anfao, with a significant loss of market share for opticians in the sale of sunglasses.

Anfao's data show a certain stability in the Italian eyewear industry. The number of people employed in the industry rose by 0.2 percent to 17,284, while the number of companies in the sector went up by one unit to 863. The number of industrial firms remained unchanged at 160.

Anfao expects the industry to continue benefiting from growing exports in 2018, albeit at a slower pace, but it is still unlikely to receive a boost from the domestic market.