Interview with Jacqueline Urbach
Jacqueline Urbach, contact lens specialist of the online shop, discountlens, and inventor of coloured contact lenses, in an interview with journalist Mathias Morgenthaler
Jacqueline Urbach wanted to be a film director, but learnt to be an optician at the wishes of her mother. At the age of 24, she immigrated to the USA where she became an entrepreneur and developed the first coloured contact lenses in 1966. Almost 50 years after this pioneering achievement, Urbach is not given thinking of quitting. For her, work is "not an obligation, but rather a form of existence".
Mrs. Urbach, your age is a well-kept secret, but even at the age 80 you're still every day at your company in Dübendorf.
JACQUELINE URBACH: Yes, of course! Should I just sit in an armchair at home and wait to become old and frail? I feel like fifty, thinking is my sustenance, solving problems my fountain of youth. Today, I have the most creative job I could imagine. It is fantastic what you can learn when you go into the online business. You just don't give any thought of quitting. Throughout my whole life, I have always turned my hobbies into a profession. That's why working is not an obligation for me, but rather a natural form of existence.
Why did you decide to become an optometrist in the 1950s?
I had completely different dreams. I wanted to become a theatre director or, preferably, a movie director. But my mother made it absolutely clear to me that this was a poor choice, good-for-nothing and that I would be better off doing something "proper". She suggested I would be better of as an optometrist – and back then, you did what your parents said. It was no picnic for me, but rather a compulsory activity. I knew early on that I wanted to become an entrepreneur. My parents ran a clothing store in Zürich and taught me: "It is better to eat a piece of dry bread and be self-employed, than to be employed and have butter on your bread.."
Was this the reason that prompted you to immigrate to the USA when you were 24 years old?
No, I wanted to learn English; it's as simple as that. The USA attracted me more than England – also because I had an uncle living there. The first year in New York was hard. I worked almost around the clock and was still nearly starving to death. After one year, I thought: if you are already starving, then it is better to starve at a sunny place. In three lessons I learnt to drive a car and eventually drove from New York in 10 days to Los Angeles. I arrived there with 300 dollars in my pocket – and founded my first company with 4000 dollars in 1959. My uncle thought I was unreasonable, but I was young and curious and didn't think anything could go wrong. If you don't have a thing, then there's nothing to lose.
Is necessity really the mother of invention?
I have experienced this time and again. My parents were not wealthy but extremely practically-minded. For my birthday, I got stockings or a pullover – not once something to play with. So I was forced to come up with and make my own toys. I remember constructing a puppet theatre with puppets and organised performances at our house. I charged 20 cents a person, my first pocket money. From then on, I have always lived within my means.
How did you manage to multiply the 4000 dollars of starting capital?
(Laughs) At first, the 4000 dollars turned into 20'000 dollars of debt. To begin with, I sold glasses, and then I met Kevin Thuey a contact lens pioneer and was immediately excited by the potential of this form of vision correction. With the remaining money, I bought a radius turning lathe and tinkered around day and night for three months until I had something resembling a contact lens. I can be unbelievably stubborn and persistent when I have something in my head – that is most likely the greatest gift I received from heaven. After that, I needed over two days to produce a first lens. The effort was worth it, because the opticians loved my products. So, thanks to the manufacture of contact lenses, I was able to have my business grow. Soon I had 15 employees. I didn't take any money out, every penny was reinvested.
And how did colour come into play? Nowadays, you are considered the inventor of colored contact lenses?
That was all due to a fateful encounter in 1966. One day, I saw a woman with beautiful brown eyes. I had to look more than once to understand what made these brown eyes so special. On the iris were two tiny yellow spots, which looked like golden dots. The twinkle in her eyes has never left my mind. It reminded me of the glitter that stars and starlets wore on their eyelids on special occasions. I was determined to incorporate the gold pigments into my lenses. Even the first attempts produced spectacular results. I was euphoric, because, with this innovation, I felt as though I had a big tiger by its tail, So I carried on experimenting, with blue, green and violet. I made several pilot batches and had the invention patented. But then something else happened.
And as of this day, you've never been bored?
Do you know the story of the young woman who fell from the deck of a luxury liner into the ocean? Suddenly, everyone heard the call "Man overboard!" and looked into the ocean. Far out, they saw somebody battling against the waves who finally managed to save the young woman. It turned out that that the lifesaver was a little, old man and the the young woman was the only daughter of a rich king. As the king nobly wanted to reward the old man , the little old man replied: "All I want to know is who pushed me into the water." Most of the time, I was in the same situation: Over and over again I found myself in deep water and had to swim to survive. In any case, I had to postpone the coloured lens project, because, at that time, the soft lenses emerged and their sales potential was considerably greater. So for the next few years, I concentrated myself into developing a new soft lens material .
Did you never think that this could exceed your capabilities?
Not at that time. I didn't have a clue about chemistry, but I took ten books out of the library, which dealt with the production of plastics. Little by little, I set up my own laboratory with distillation equipment, vacuum oven, scales, funnels and many other tools. Isn't it incredible how much a person can learn in a small amount of time when they have a goal in mind? For months, I worked 16 hours a day and, after many month, I finally, had a first soft contact lens in front of me. When I carefully pulled on it, however, it immediately broke into pieces. So, once again, I had to start from the beginning. I had no idea that the real problems still lay ahead.