Technical innovation lies at the heart of Oakley’s success, and has since 1975, when CEO Jim Jannard, then a motocross rider, invented a new kind of motorcycle handlebar grip.

In 1980, Oakley (named after Jannard’s dog) branched successfully into sports goggles, and, in the late 1980s, burst into the sunglasses market with the “Frogskin” and the “Razor Blade,” two convention-rattling models that featured an innovative wrap-around design and a patented lens material.

In the mid-90s, Oakley raised the technical bar even higher with a new line of optics. Until then, many sunglasses used lens materials that refracted, or bent, incoming light so much that the wearer’s view was often distorted.

Approaching objects-a 95-mph fast ball, for example-might appear a few degrees to the left or right of where they actually were, affecting athletic performance and making even everyday wear less comfortable. To correct that problem, Jannard reinvented his entire lens design and production process.

The result was so-called XYZ Optics, a patented process that, Oakley claims, creates lenses with less distortion and better clarity than do many other lenses on the market.

Patents or Packaging?

In fact, Oakley says its lens technology is so good that it has had to sue some of its rivals-most recently, Nike and Smith-to keep them from copying it. “Our technology is one of our biggest assets,” says Jannard. “And when someone tries to steal it, we protect it.”

Naturally, some of Oakley’s rivals see things differently. Ned Post, president of Idaho-based Smith Sport Optics, says much of the lens technology Oakley claims to have invented has actually been in existence for years.

“They’re really not offering technology that hasn’t been around for some time,” argues Post. “They’ve just done a great job of packaging that technology and an even better job of using U.S. patent laws to their great advantage. They’ve really given everyone else a lesson in business.”

Indeed, while Oakley would dispute Post’s contention that its technology isn’t new, they readily acknowledge the importance that optic quality plays in its business strategy. Good optics, says Carlos Reyes, vice president of product development, is one of the main reasons big-name pro athletes wear their Oakleys during competition.

“Oakelys are a major part of my equipment,” says baseball slugger Jeff Kent, last year’s major league MVP and a member of Oakley’s sports marketing team. “They take the glare off the baseball so I can pick up the rotation and gauge the speed of the pitch.”

Nor, says Reyes, are pro athletes the only ones who notice the difference. “Admittedly, when a non-athlete first tires on a pair of Oakleys, they’re probably not overwhelmed by the improvement in lens quality,” Reyes says. “But as soon as they try on their old sunglasses, it’s pretty clear what the difference is, and they can’t go back.”

In fact, despite the economic downturn and a damp, less-than-sunny spring, sunglasses sales this season are running ahead of last year’s numbers.