To tell the story of Shwood, you need to go back to the tree. The majestic Madrone species, with peeling red bark and large, leathery evergreen leaves, found abundantly throughout the Pacific Northwest. From a limb of one such tree growing in a neighbor’s yard, Eric Singer whittled away until he fashioned a pair of glasses from the tightly-grained hardwood.
It would be the first of many experiments with nature that has come to define this Portland-based brand of handcrafted, wooden eyewear. Core to Shwood’s story is this fertile amalgamation of fine craftsmanship, adventurous thinking, and artistic expression. Since that initial pair pieced together from cabinet hinges and cheap lenses, the company has consistently nurtured a thoughtful sense of wonder and discovery.
“We wanted to create a brand that encompasses the lifestyle which inspires our craft,” says creative director Taylor Murray. “Our tagline (‘Experiment with nature’) really sums it all up. We aim to experiment daily in our approach to both running a brand and our personal lives. Our goal is to tell stories of these experiments that hopefully inspire others to think critically and try new things as well.”
The commitment and attention to storytelling elevates the Shwood brand above a plethora of pedestrian choices. Eyeglasses can either be worn with hardly any thought at all, or they can be the single accessory that defines your signature look — think John Lennon, Woody Allen, Audrey Hepburn or Steve Jobs. The team at Shwood seems to innately understand how to position its brand to exist firmly in this second category.
More to the point, this positioning resonates deeply with Shwood fans, who aren’t looking to merely dull the daylight glare.
“There’s a difference between fashion and style, and our customers know that,” Murray says. “True style is something unique to the individual, not dictated by what is currently selling at H&M.”
Of course, the brand story can’t be separated from the product itself. In Shwood’s case, the use of natural wood immediately conveys individuality because, well, no two trees are ever the same. The frames aren’t mass produced; the company once made only 10 pairs a day. Sustainably sourced premium lumber is laser cut in its Portland workshop, then hand-glued layer by layer, and finally polished to a beautiful sheen. In recent years, the company has moved beyond wood and created frames out of vintage Atlantic vinyl records, Louisville sluggers, old newspapers, and even osprey feathers, made using high-pressure resin casting.
Each of these materials was chosen not only for its beauty, but also for the story that it can offer both the brand and the wearer. To reinforce these stories, Shwood masterfully employs storytelling across its many marketing channels, from its Instagram account with 62,000 followers to its blog called — what else? — “Experiment With Nature.” Not surprisingly, the content is driven by stunning visuals.
Its photography series, “Journeys,” showcases the globe-trotting lifestyle of its tribe, mainly camera-wielding creatives who are inspired by faraway places and adventure. These photo essays are meant to be aspirational and organic, rather than highly produced product placements. Each “Journey” begins with a close collaboration with a photographer.
“When we work with potential photographers, it starts with a conversation about a story that they want to tell,” says Joe Stevens, Shwood’s in-house photographer/videographer. “We partner with interesting people, so it has been pretty easy to get amazing stories that fits into the overall Journeys theme — which is to inspire our audience to get outside and find their own adventure, however big or small that may be.”
The company also produces short films that are essentially wordless documentaries that give fans a glimpse of the inspiration and production processes behind their favorite shades.
Shwood’s success has spawned several copycat brands, and it also faces competition from a growing number of direct-to-consumer purveyors, led by industry trailblazer Warby Parker, with lower price points. But the company intends to stick to its low volume, high quality approach, emphasizing storytelling all along the way.
“Much of our line is made in Portland, Oregon, 50 feet from my desk,” says brand marketing director Erin Cry, “and that adds to both the quality and cost… We believe that when people see and feel our product, they will feel good about whatever price they paid for it.”