The stagnation experienced by the Italian eyewear industry throughout 1999 would seem to be over. Initial figures show that production in the 1st quarter of 2000 increased by 8.1 percent as compared to the same period last year. According to Paolo Cannicci, chairman of the Italian eyewear manufacturers association (Anfao), the year should end on a positive note as member companies are selling well, largely thanks to the depreciation of the euro against the dollar.

By the end of 1999, the Italian eyewear industry had recovered a substantial part of its traditional export volume, reducing from 12 to 1.9 percent the decline as compared to the previou year's values. Nonetheless, imports continue to rise by 11.7 percent in 1999 to 555 billion lire (e287m-$266m), with a particularly sharp 34 percent increase for sunglasses. Sunglasses also made a major contribution to Italy's export recovery. With sales of 731 billion lire (e378m-$350m), the increase over 1998 amounted to 5.9 percent, which was 1.6 percentage points more than in 1997. While Europe was up 13.4 percent and Asia 12.4 percent, America was the exception, with a 7.1 percent drop over the previous year. As sunglasses have a particularly strong link with fashion, consumers tend to buy a number of pairs, contrary to the norm for corrective spectacles.

Instead, Italian exports of corrective frames dropped by 6 percent in 1999, while remaining relatively high at 1,215 billion lire (e582m-$540m). Sales of frames in the rest of Europe went against the general trend, growing by 2.1 percent, while the American market lost a staggering 13.5 percent and Asia was down 2.5 percent.

The overall value of Italian production fell by 4.7 percent in 1999, declining to 2,850 billion lire (e1,472m-$1,366m). Small and medium-sized firms were the hardest hit, with exports a full 25 percent down from the year before, and they now represent no more than 35 percent of Italy's exports, as opposed to the 65 percent held by the 7 major industrial companies that lead the way. These ?seven sisters? are now the mainstay of Italy's eyewear industry, and they have taken on board lately some 500 skilled workers laid off by the smaller ones to respond to the rising foreign demand.

The smaller firms are faced with the choice of expanding or disappearing, as analysts put at 50 billion lire (e25m-$24m) the minimum annual turnover to remain viable in the world market. Anfao is advising the smaller firms with sales of at least 5 billion lire (e2.5m-$2.4m) to look for partners on the marketing or fashion side.