Wednesday, May 22, 2024

From the Magazine: The Eyes Have It

Each set of antique “big eye” binoculars in Luxxoptica’s showroom off Worth Avenue has its own backstory. One was discovered hidden in the wall of a former U.S. Navy escort ship as it was being salvaged. Another four pairs were found in a bunker during the occupation of Japan in World War II and wound up in the hands of the U.S. military because, as the adage goes, to the victor go the spoils.

Many of the objects—some designed to peer over the Berlin wall, or gaze above Japanese trenches—remained in the possession of soldiers’ families for generations. Others are still, quite likely, entombed in the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. But for those pieces lost and found, Luxxoptica is often where they turn up, resurfaced and repolished in aluminum and nickel, and swiveling proudly on teak tripods.

“This is an original piece that came off a German U-boat,” says Mike Colombo, Luxxoptica’s general manager, gesturing to one such binocular. “It’s a very unusual optic, with a massive field of view, and they produced about 250 during the war. They were considered critical military hardware, and there are stories of sailors being threatened with execution if anything happened [to them] during their care.

“The funny thing about those, is before the U.S. entered the war, the German U-boats used to patrol three miles off the coast, and use those binoculars to look on shore right here in Florida. The sailors would even come to the beach, and go to the bars in Jupiter to get a beer.”

Restored binoculars at Luxxoptica

An interest in history—particularly WWII naval history—compels many of Luxxoptica’s deep-pocketed buyers. The shop’s restored binoculars can run from around $12,000 to the granddaddy of them all, a pair of 150mm Nikkos, discovered in 2021, with serial No. 1 stamped on the left prism housing; it will set you back a cool quarter of a million dollars.

“Pieces like this, there are very few buyers for it, but the people who do buy, they have a significant checkbook,” Colombo says. “It’s really one-of-a kind stuff.”

Colombo describes the binoculars as “functional artwork,” not all of which caters to the 1 percent. Luxxoptica produces four reproduction models—christened the Asahi, Midway, Yamato and Katori—that start at $5,900. For these buyers, “it’s a high-end optic, in a space that has a view,” Colombo says. “It’s quite often a talking point in a room. Some end up in businesses; a couple have ended up in high-end yachts.”

Luxxoptica opened its first showroom in 2021 in a Palm Beach storefront off North County Road, then moved to its current location, in Via Newsome, in 2022. Foot traffic is copious outside the glass-walled gallery, and the shop gets plenty of oglers for an inventory that stands out among the clothiers, jewelers and restaurants that surround it.

The business side of Luxxoptica is officially headquartered in Boca Raton, in a nondescript office building on Federal Highway, and it has a presence in one of the city’s landmarks: Four of its binoculars are on display at The Boca Raton, which also sells them in its gift shop.

Though only open for three years, Luxxoptica has all but cornered the market on its niche product. Its owner—who is media-shy and requested anonymity—sells to collectors around the globe. Celebrity clientele have included Guy Fieri, Sylvester Stallone and the late Jimmy Buffett, who “used to ride his scooter around and pop in the shop,” Colombo says.

As for the “functional” aspect of the art? “They’re looking at the water, they’re looking at the mountains, or they’re looking at the neighbors,” Colombo says with a chuckle.

In terms of optical devices, he’s aware that more-affordable options are plentiful. “You can find other binoculars out there, that are, for lack of a better term, the Radio Shack version,” he says. “They’re good technical pieces; they’re just not beautiful instruments you want to look at. What we focus on is finding the antiques, bringing them back, preserving the history in a way that they’re going to stay in families for probably hundreds of years.

“It’s a tiny market, we’re a tiny business, but I think we’re the biggest in this tiny little space.”

This article is from the April 2024 issue of Boca magazine. For more like this, click here to subscribe to the magazine.

John Thomason
John Thomason
As the A&E editor of bocamag.com, I offer reviews, previews, interviews, news reports and musings on all things arty and entertainment-y in Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties.

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