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The eyes have it: Jacksonville's Johnson & Johnson taps overseas eyewear niche

Inside Johnson & Johnson’s Jacksonville campus, home to its Vision Care division and 1,800 employees, is a three-story beige building that houses its research and development labs. Nine years ago, researchers there created circle lenses, also known as beauty lenses, which make the wearers’ irises appear larger and more defined than they actually are.

Studies have shown that people are perceived as being more attractive when they have dark, defined “limbal rings,” which surround the iris and fade with age. Circle lenses not only enhance the limbal ring, but can add definition, depth and sparkle as well, says Lenora Copper, Jacksonville-based director of research and development of beauty lenses for Johnson & Johnson.

The lenses have proved popular in Asia, where cultural standards place a heavy emphasis on large eyes. Johnson & Johnson is doing well enough to invest $218 million in expanding the Jacksonville operation this year, adding 100 jobs.

The company also has begun to investigate how best to market the lenses to Americans and Europeans. Circle lenses are not yet approved for sale in the U.S., but the New York Times reported that some American women are ordering them online from Asia without a prescription, inspired after seeing singer Lady Gaga wear the lenses in a music video.

One challenge: Selling beauty lenses in the United States or Europe means developing 20 colors, compared to the four variations of brown needed for sales in Asia and the Middle East. Americans and Europeans don’t place the same emphasis on eyes, the company says. In Asia, it’s considered part of a makeup routine, Copper says. “That isn’t translated to a U.S. market yet,” she says.

While sales of contact lenses grew a modest 2.7% last year to $3 billion, they still account for only 4.5% of Johnson & Johnson’s $67.2 billion in annual revenue. The company won’t disclose how much it makes from selling circle lenses.