CHESHIRE — The first thing town native Amy Cody notices about people is their eyes.
She doesn't observe just the color either. Cody notices the shape of the eye and the size of the pupil. She notes whether someone’s sclera – that’s the white part – is grayish, yellowed and bloodshot, or clear. On a recent Tuesday morning, Cody looked at her two visitors and offered her assessment:
“You have bigger irises than most people,” Cody said to one of her guests.
“Yours are really average. I’m sorry,” she said to the other.
All of this talk is an occupational hazard.
Cody is the fourth generation to run Schoepfer’s Eyes, a Cheshire-based company that sells over 100,000 glass-blown eyes per year all over the world for use in dolls, decoys, and other art projects. Her great-grandfather Gustav founded the company. His son William succeeded him, followed by Cody’s father James.
“It’s been a labor of love, keeping it alive,” she said.
Her four-person company is set off of Cook Hill Road in a red farmhouse next to her home. The office itself is nondescript: high key florescent lights and a couple of desks. Cody goes in back to a rack of shelving and takes down a small wooden gray box.
Inside are dozens of prosthetic eyes made in the 1900s, representing all colors, sizes, levels of health. It is slightly strange and rather lovely.
“It takes really a lot of skill to make these,” she said. “These were blown over a coal burner, so you see a grayish tint around them. That’s a way you can tell they are truly antique.”
Cody’s great-grandfather Gustav Schoepfer, the son of a German immigrant of the same name, founded the company in 1907 a half-block from Madison Square Garden in New York City. He learned the delicate art of glassblowing, a process of inflating molten glass using intense bursts of air. The company sold blown glass Christmas ornaments, but quickly realized that dolls were no longer just a toy for wealthy children. The company was making hundreds of thousands of the eyes at that time, she said.
But tastes change, and such a specialized business has to change to keep with the times.
“He made it through World War I, the Great Depression, World War II — it was pretty amazing how they were able to get through all of that,” Cody said. “Usually what happens in times of deep recession is that people look to crafts for their happiness. They can’t spend money or go out to dinner or on vacation, so they stay at home and do crafts for their relaxation.”
When doll eyes and prosthetics didn't pay all the bills, Gustav started doing eyes for taxidermy. Then he started dabbling in taxidermy itself, and when that became passe, he started collecting people’s discarded animals and set up a showroom.
“The definitive source for natural zebra and steer skin rugs,” trumpeted an ad from New York Magazine in the 1970s.
“He was pretty amazing,” Cody said. “He saw a niche and went for it. If that wasn’t working to his potential, he’d find another thing.”
Photographers clamored to use the Schoepfer collection in fashion shoots and as part of gags in “Saturday Night Live” and “The Naked Gun.” When the Endangered Species Act passed into law in 1973, artists’ access to these kinds of wild animals was cut off, so the Schoepfers were able to provide a necessary pre-Photoshop artistic service. Cody is careful to note that the animals had all been gathered before the law went into effect and that the company was sold in 1993.
The next steps for the eyes portion of the company was show business. Schoepfer's eyes have appeared in countless movies and television shows, most famously perhaps in the final sequence of “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” when the Nazis have their faces melted by the power of the Ark of the Covenant. They’ve matched famous actors’ eyes for wax figures at Madame Tussaud’s Museum and for film special effects.
The demand has calmed down since those halcyon days. Business is now steady, Cody said. The requests range from the sad — matching the eyes of a recently deceased young girl for a doll, for example — to the strange.
“I’ve gotten requests for a brassiere with eyeballs.,” Cody said. “There’s an artist in Brooklyn who does sweaters with cat eyes. He makes a pretty good living.”
However, most people are usually looking to make decoys or finish off a doll. Jac Johnson, an artist and president of Three Point Design based in Virginia Beach, doesn’t go anywhere else for the eyes needed to make his art.
“We’ve never looked another place,” Johnson said. “The quality and the customer service are so good. We have a good relationship and that is just the way it is. If you do a good product for a reasonable price, you can find a market and stay in business.”
A wooden owl, a piece of home decor featured in the Pendleton catalog for the past several years, sells better than some of Johnson’s offerings. He believes that the eyes have quite a bit to do with it.
“They glint in the sun,” he said. “The eyes give depth and a perception of wisdom.”
Cody didn't think that she would end up in the family business, nor did her father, James, ever pressure her to do so.
She had embarked on a successful career as a graphic designer and thought that would be how she spent her days.
“I remember when the New Yorker did a piece on my dad and the history of G. Schoepfer (the original name of the company). The publication focused on my brother and not me, taking over the business. It’s kind of ironic. What about me? I am as much a Schoepfer as he is,” Cody said.
So when the time came for her dad to retire, Amy stepped up and took over, creating a life that she loves. If something needs to be done, she tackles it. The decisions are hers. Her time is her own. Cody has become a master at all aspects of the operation.
“If there is something at school for the children, I can go. If they are sick and need to be picked up, I can go,” she said. “I really wouldn’t have it any other way.”
With the hundreds of thousands of glass eyes in the family’s collection, were any of the Schoepfers so immortalized?
The answer is, of course. Cody’s brother has bright green eyes.
“My father had them replicated,” she said.
Are Amy Cody’s eye part of the collection? In a manner of speaking, yes. Research was done using her eyes to perfect striation and pigmentation, but as for her color — well, there are a million brown eyes out there.
“You wish you had amazing eyes instead of brown nondescript ones,” Cody said. “My friend has gold eyes that are amazing.”