MSRP: $179.95 (with Zebra lenses)
Julbo sunglasses are a little bit like crocodiles–archosaurs that have been around for ages, successfully adapting to a changing world. A variety of Julbo models have evolved over the decades since the iconic “Vermont” model (still available from the company today) influenced markets in 1950, but the original intent of the Julbo design was to protect the eyes in alpine environments where the sunrays are amplified by snow glare, which is why they are also known as “glacier glasses.” On these occasions, it’s often too hot to wear ski goggles, which hug the face and seal off airflow. But it’s still necessary to have your eyes protected from all angles, hence the bug-eyed appearance of the traditional Julbo, which might be described as a cross between traditional sunglasses and goggles. One of the company’s latest designs, the Explorer 2.0, bears this similarity to its ancestors.
I’d just begun my climbing career as a wide-eyed 11-year-old in the 1990s when my cousin Ryan, who is five years older and was my first climbing inspiration and mentor, started wearing the classic, round, wire-rimmed Julbos everywhere he went. I chuckled at his alien appearance at first, but then I came to associate the style as the mark of a dedicated mountaineer. People who didn’t understand were outsiders. Lately I only wear these shades when the situation calls for it, though the photochromic lenses of the Explorer 2.0 adjust for the level of brightness and it’s easy to forget I’m wearing them until I see the strange looks I get at the grocery store.
My wife promises the Explorer 2.0 model is significantly more fashionable than my old pair of Julbos from 2004, but I still prefer not to wear them around town. Maybe I’m compensating for those years when I sported them perhaps a bit too proudly, but I just don’t feel natural wearing this specialized gear for everyday use. That doesn’t mean they don’t have their place, however, and I’m very happy with their performance.
The Explorer 2.0–which are (you guessed it) the new and improved version of the Explorer–is just one model in a multitude that Julbo currently makes, so it is possible to pick and choose a pair based on the attributes that matter most to you. The Explorer 2.0, for example, is available with Camel ($199.95), Zebra ($179.95) or Spectron lenses ($129.95). The model I tested has the Zebra lenses, which are only available with one frame style, while the other two varieties offer different color schemes and are designed for brighter environments (the Camel lenses are also photochromic). The Zebra lenses seem to be well suited for Colorado’s Rocky Mountains.
This techy bit of eyewear does what it’s designed to do very well: they are light (44 grams) and don’t jostle when I run; the photochromic lenses adjust seamlessly to the level of brightness and rarely fog up (and when they do, thanks to excellent ventilation, the fog quickly clears). Not only that, they are durable and backed up with a lifetime warranty.
The first thing a prospective buyer may notice is that these glasses are not cheap–even the most affordable pair costs as much as a decent pair of ski goggles. You get what you pay for, though. I asked Julbo Marketing Manager Dave Crothers to explain some of the technical attributes that are listed on the product’s webpage and he sent the following information in an email:
Lightweight: 1.11 density: This means the photochromic material we use, NXT, is lighter than glass and lighter than polycarbonate. Polycarbonate being what you find in 99 percent of sunglasses.
High optical quality: ABBE number 45: This refers to the optical quality of NXT, you can learn more about it here but basically, the higher the number, the higher the optical quality. Polycarbonate lenses are around 34.
Cast production: Cast production is the way the photochromic NXT material is made. It’s poured into a mold rather than injected. The injection process is how manufactures make polycarbonate lenses and the injection process is instantaneous, making it cheaper but also not as high quality. Cast production is poured and takes between 15 and 24 hours to set. It creates a lens with a very high optical clarity, but it’s expensive as well.
In-mass photochromic treatment: This means the photochromic technology is built into the lens so you can’t scratch it off and it’ll never stop transitioning.
Durability: lifetime coating guarantee: We have an anti-fog coating on the inside of all our NXT lenses and we guarantee it and all the technology built into the lens for the lifetime of the product. Obviously if you run it over with your car we can’t guarantee it won’t break but if the glasses are used for what they’re intended for, we guarantee all our eyewear for the lifetime of the product.
My one hesitance to award this particular model five perfect stars is that it only comes in one size. The flexible temple arms are moldable and can indeed fit many head profiles, as Crothers pointed out to me. But the frames feel a bit too large for my face, which is annoying even though the glasses don’t bounce around during vigorous activity. They simply don’t feel secure or natural when I put them on, but then I soon forget they’re there.
Another consideration for the Explorer 2.0 is that they are very goggle-like, which is great for days where I want more protection for my face, such as when I’m skiing into the wind. They are equipped with removable side shields, which are part of what protects the face from snow glare, but taking these off doesn’t always provide the airflow I want. On extra-hot days with no breeze, when I’m leaning into the hill and working up a sweat, I tend to reach for other shades that allow even more airflow.
Ultimately I’m very happy to have these modern Julbos in my quiver. They are as close to a perfect fit for my outdoor eyewear needs as I’ve experienced so far. I doubt they’ll catch on as a fashion statement like their round, wire-rimmed predecessors did, though.
Derek Franz is Alpinist’s digital editor and has been romping around the mountains since he could crawl.
Ventilate well, though maybe not quite enough on the warmest days (removable side shields only help so much).
Frames stay put and don’t jostle around, thanks to highly flexible “360 adjustable temples” and Grip Tech fittings.
Photochromic anti-fog lenses (“category 2 to 4”) adjust to brightness; I forget I’m wearing the glasses sometimes.
Frames only come in one size
They perform well but their functionality prevents them from being very fashionable–similar to ski goggles, I will only wear them when I truly need them.