Meet the family behind prosthetic eyeballs

Ever wonder where prosthetic eyes come from? Some pharmaceutical giant? A loud, whirring assembly line in a far-flung country? Try a few small families, who keep their craft close to their heart…and their bloodlines.

Universities don’t offer course work in ocularistry, with its odd blend of art and science. The only real way to learn the trade is to apprentice yourself to another ocularist, if you can find one willing to train you. Most opt to keep their secrets within their families.

"I equate it to being a blacksmith in the old days," ocularist David Gougelmann says. "Children followed in the footsteps of the father."

But like all families, the ties that bind can also eventually snap:

"Most families in the field of ocularistry have some kind of conflict," Gougelmann says. The son of a father who worked until he was 78 — "I don’t know many ocularists who’ve ever retired" — he chalks it up to a tension that exists in family businesses of all kinds.

"There’s this difficulty letting go," Gougelmann says. "You brought somebody into the business. At what point do you treat him as a peer? At what point do you relinquish the reins?"

Read more in our latest Column One feature.

Photos: Al Seib / Los Angeles Times

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