For a sculptor, the statue awaits him inside the stone. For Pete Duncan
, inside a block of wood waits your new pair of sunglasses.
Cut from some of the most sought-after timber in the world—Georgia black cherry, Virginia black locust, Pennsylvania oak, New York maple and black walnut from western North Carolina—Legacy Eyewear
frames offer not just a different style and feel, but an identity as rich and storied as their land of origin.
A Wilmingtonian for almost a decade, Duncan believes his business concept meshes with the town’s blend of natural and human history, where the laid back vibe of beach life meets a transplant population from every corner of the U.S.
It also falls in line with some big global trends in eyewear, an industry projected to jump
from $90 billion to $140 billion in 2020. Sunglasses make up about 40 percent of those sales, and there's some major innovation going on among startup players like Warby Parker and Sunski, who are trying to offer quality glasses at affordable prices.
Duncan is betting that sustainability will be the next frontier, and while he's not alone in making frames out of wood—there are three such companies in the Carolinas—most of his competitors hail from the West Coast, Florida and New York.
Helping him get the edge is a successful Kickstarter campaign, which wraps up tomorrow at least $3,000 above a $5,000 goal. The funds will help Legacy ramp up production on five new $120 frame styles, joining the four he started with earlier this year.
But what makes Legacy unique isn't so much about market. It's about the story behind his craft.
A chip off the old block
Heritage itself comes full circle in Pete Duncan’s journey from upstate New York to the Carolina coast. Growing up in Niagara Falls, he worked as a shophand for his father, who dealt in cabinetry, other built-ins and custom projects.
“While, most of the time, I was the kid cleaning up sawdust or retrieving tools, I still developed an appreciation for the process of woodworking—from raw material to finished product—and for the variety of character in the wood itself,” Duncan says.
Duncan’s interest in design also came from his father, who’d spent time at a production printing company as well. Duncan majored in graphic design at Alfred University in New York and soon after graduation in January 2008 moved to Wilmington with his wife, who took an engineering job in the beach town.
Duncan worked as a designer for a local printing and publishing company for a few years before he was inspired by the company’s owners to launch Legacy.
“I helped to revamp their production process and was soon promoted to production manager,” Duncan says. “But, in my free time, I was still trying to find the right niche in woodworking. And when I decided to focus on my own business, they were super supportive.”
On the side, Duncan had tried a few different markets before settling on eyewear. First, he built custom furniture and sold to clients as far north as his home state and as far west as California. But making such large shipments eventually became too cumbersome, which led Duncan to try his hand at signage and even wood-crafted skateboards.
Then, in May 2014, his daughter Wendy was born.
“That was my uh-oh moment,” Duncan says. “I, like a lot of creative people, can jump from project to project in a fervor. But when the baby news came, it’s like, all right, let’s focus, and let’s focus big time.”
Duncan asked the ownership at the printing company to let him drop down to a part-time designer role so that he could go full-time entrepreneur. And so, too, on January 21, 2016, Legacy Eyewear came into the world.
A new take on nostalgia
The hour-long process of making a single pair of Legacy glasses is equal parts rustic and tech age. First, rough lumber must be cut into 3”x7” cubes, one cube per pair of sunglasses.
This single cube, from which the front piece of the glasses will be shaped, is then taken to a computer-controlled cutting machine. Here, a 3D model is created according to each separate style of frame, so that the machine knows what must be cut away from the wood.
Next, it’s off to the sanding station to polish up the edges, then a hand router to carve the groove where the lenses fit into the frame.
At the finishing station, stacks of hinges, temples and lenses await attachment to the final product. Duncan’s lenses are made by the German eyewear company, Carl Zeiss.
What sets each Legacy pair above any plastic frames—beyond the natural material and handmade quality—is the sizing and hinges. Whenever Duncan designs a new style, he purchases a bunch of glasses similar to the style he has in mind, then compiles an aggregate of dimension measurements, resulting in the most inclusive fit for triangle faces and melon heads alike.
While cheaper acetate pairs use single hinges, Duncan’s frames are equipped with double-hinged, stainless steel flex hinges. This offers a better fit and much less a chance of accidentally snapping them in two at your next pool party.
And for anyone whose shades have sunk to the bottom of the sea, no worries--thanks to its lightweight frame, you can drop any Legacy style in water and it will float.
Holding a pair in my hand, I was surprised by how light they felt—much lighter than the average pair made from acetate and found on the revolving racks in gas stations. But, upon closer look, the precision is remarkable—how the angle of each cut flatters the natural run of the grain. After looking long enough, the fact sunk in that those sunglasses were probably a century older than me.
“I definitely wanted glasses of superior construction besides just the obvious fact that they’re made out of wood,” Duncan says.
And, for Duncan, the wood itself represents everything Legacy Eyewear stands for. His timber is American-grown and his glasses are American-made (with the help of three other workers), while most major eyewear brands mass-produce from overseas. In reality, there’s not much difference in production cost between dollar store and premium sunglasses, as you’re often paying mostly for the name.
“Even a lot of companies that specialize in wood accessories are sourcing from China,” Duncan says. “I don’t want to be just another guy who only talks about bringing jobs back to America. I want to make it happen.”
Planting the seeds
Though company headquarters will remain in the garage workshop behind Duncan’s house for now, he hopes to eventually create more jobs through a bricks and mortar location in Wilmington.
While he continues to raise funding for that and other business growth, he’s making the rounds at local events at bottle shops and breweries in Wilmington to help spread the word and bounce ideas off of potential investors. He also frequents the Raleigh Makers Market and the Patchwork Market held monthly at Fullsteam Brewery in Durham.
Throughout Duncan’s trek from the sugar maples of New York down through lush Appalachia and into the Carolina pines, family has been his inspiration.
“My wife brings so much stability to my work,” Duncan says. “As an engineer, she applies the scientific method to everything. She’ll say, ‘Why are you doing this? Why are you doing that? Test, check, repeat.’”
Duncan’s mom and two sisters are supportive too, and his dad is convinced he’ll be Legacy’s first C-suite hire.
And Duncan’s two-year-old daughter, like her father, has already begun work as a shophand, though this mostly involves stealing tools and hiding them. Duncan says she’s always the best excuse for a work break. But she just might also be the next artisan down the line.