It’s often the case that if you’ve grown up near water, you develop a lifelong connection with it. Fritz Schwarz spent his childhood on the former-East German island of Rügen, developing an intimate acquaintance with the Baltic Sea while exploring his love of sailing. That love soon turned into a career in boat-building and a journey to the other side of the world to settle next to the Pacific Ocean on the Sunshine Coast. From there, Fritz has channelled his artisan talents into a new venture, Fritz Frames, through which he applies his boat-building nous to the craft of handmade eyewear, making stylish yet impeccably engineered glasses from sustainably sourced wood.
Fritz Schwarz was in the habit of breaking things as a child. “Looking back, my upbringing on the island was important in terms of my relationship to material goods,” he reflects. “If we had things break back then, we either had to repair it somehow or not have it at all. I was always breaking things and so I was really interested in how to fix things and, later, how to improve and make things.”
As the years passed, Fritz’s tinkering evolved to a grander scale, as a result of his passion for sailing and racing boats. He began spending his weekends modifying the family’s boats to make them more competitive. Those skills became particularly useful when it came time to do his compulsory year of civil service in Germany, which he spent working on a project with troubled youth on the island, restoring old boats and bicycles. As part of the project, he sat in on workshops with the young people he was working with, where he himself picked up extra skills such as welding, metalwork and cabinetmaking, inspiring him to eventually complete a boat-building apprenticeship.
While at school on Rügen, Fritz had happened to fall in love with an Australian girl who was living there as an exchange student. In 2005 the couple married and, not long after, decided to move to the Sunshine Coast. Upon arrival, Fritz set to work building their home and furniture, and soon also began building furniture for friends and family. As he settled into his new life, the next few years saw him take on a series of jobs that indulged his artisanal skills – building fittings for a multi-million-dollar yacht in Perth, as well as starting his own business building and selling wooden kite boards.
In amongst his large repertoire of handiwork, Fritz had also long been making his own glasses – more out of necessity than creativity. “During my apprenticeship I’d have glasses break on me, but I’d still have the lenses,” he explains. “I had a lot of spare time on my hands and I’d been learning about carbon-fibre techniques. So I made a pair of glasses for myself out of solid carbon fibre and they were a great success, lasting for five years or so. They had no hinges, so they couldn’t really break, and they had a string attached to the back so they were great for sailing and diving.”
Admiring his original creations, Fritz’s wife Mary requested that he make her a similar pair of glasses, but this time from wood. Pondering the conundrum momentarily, he solved it by crafting a carbon-fibre frame with a wooden veneer. Mary quickly began receiving compliments about her homemade eyewear and sensed a business opportunity. “She kind of bullied me into going pro,” Fritz laughs. “But also, at the time, the kite-boarding business wasn’t doing so well. Beauty is really lost on most kite-boarding fanatics so you can’t really charge much.”
In mid-2010, he registered Fritz Frames as a company and, within six months, was winning awards for his designs. “Part of what convinced me to continue with eyewear is that the response was overwhelming,” he says gratefully. “I can’t comprehend where that response came from, but then it’s not to be comprehended; it’s to be noticed and then followed upon. I’ve made a lot of things in my life, but nobody got excited about any of those as much as they have about the eyewear.”
Converse to the founding philosophies of many other eyewear brands, Fritz points out that his own approach grew from an appreciation of the materials rather than a desire to create a fashionable item. “It started with the craft and the materials, so there’s more of an engineering factor in it for me. It’s wood composite and has carbon-fibre and fibre reinforcements, so the material is extremely strong. That means you can have very thin rims, which gives you much more design freedom.” Another distinguishing factor of the Fritz Frames design is its coating, which protects the glasses from moisture and UV rays and prevents the wood from coming in contact with the skin.
True to the problems often encountered by artisans who turn their craft into a successful business, Fritz says his greatest challenge has been making the move from the workshop to the office, and finding a healthy balance between the two. “But I’m quite proud of the fact that I didn’t have to borrow money or buy my success and that instead it happened organically,” he says. “I’ve gradually grown the company from grassroots and, for me, that’s something to be proud of.”
Being his own boss also gave him the freedom to choose his own job title. Not wanting to bear the mundane label of CEO, he pondered other possibilities. At first he considered ‘creator’,but was quickly deterred by the Biblical connotations. “I don’t believe in a god. From my background in East Germany, we didn’t have any gods – we were all communists in a way and churches were for seeing blues musicians and occasional rock concerts.” Instead, he chose ‘realiser’. “A realiser is someone who not only makes things, but also makes things happen,” he explains.
Currently Fritz and his small team make around 50 frames a month, which are sold mostly through stockists (locally at eyewear den, Optiko). And while the brand’s international market is growing slowly, Fritz says he is content to focus on efforts closer to home.
His inspiration, he reveals, comes from seeing other people’s perspectives of eyewear, be it in magazines or in the work of other designers he knows. “It’s not rocket science to design a pair of glasses, but there is a certain level of excellence involved. That’s what we aspire to.”
Grateful to his wife for having nudged him in the right direction, Fritz says she inspires him in myriad ways. “She’s very artistic and has her own opinion about things,” he says fondly. “It’s also nice to have a female perspective on the whole fashion side of things.”
In crafting his plans for the future, Fritz’s goals lie far beyond the world of eyewear. “My dream is to grow things to the point where the business is making enough money that I can go and travel and sail and not be in the workshop until midnight making a pair of glasses,” he says. “I’d like to find that sustainable balance.”
For now he finds his peace aboard a boat when he goes sailing with a friend every Sunday, or when surfing and kite surfing in “cyclonic conditions” with not a soul in sight.
As for his advice to other artisans following in his path, Fritz believes that the most important factor is to maintain humility. “Stay humble and under promise but over deliver,” he says. “If you start bragging about things, you can’t keep up with what you promise.”