Fifteen years into his career as an electrical engineer, Jim Tilley decided he wanted to become his own boss. So the Wisconsin native began methodically researching the field he wanted to pursue, eventually deciding to go back to school for optometry.
After graduating in the top of his class from the Pennsylvania College of Optometry, Tilley immediately moved to Middle Tennessee to open his own business. He gained experience in big retail stores and private practices across the state before opening CharacterEYES Eyecare and Optical in 2004, bringing his vision of a state-of-the-art facility that offers high-end designs and personalized eye care to Downtown Franklin.
“My goal was to open a store with quality products that you cannot find anywhere else. Something hard to find,” he said. “I wear glasses, and I want to wear something that’s cool. I know what others like me are looking for.”
Though the correlation between Tilley’s two careers isn’t immediately apparent, the doctor says his engineering background has, in some sense, paved the way for his most recent profession.
“When I went back to school, it was because I didn’t want to limit myself. I wanted to control my own destiny,” he said. “I’ve found several similarities between the two fields—both involve problem-solving and detail-oriented aspects. “
CharacterEYES—whose tagline is “sophisticated, funky, fashion-forward and alluring eye wear”—also offers comprehensive and specialty eye services that include screening for cataracts, glaucoma and other diseases or systemic disorders. The boutique business naturally targets a higher-end clientele: much of its eyewear includes one-of-a-kind pieces made from unique materials, like buffalo horn. For the doctor, style takes just as much precedence as quality.
“To me it’s jewelry for the face. It’s fashion over necessity,” he said. “Like shoes. That’s a necessity that has somehow been classified as fashion over eye wear.”
The doctor says he searches for products not assembled in China. The majority of the business’s brands are European or Japanese made—such as Paul Smith—but he does carry Oliver Peoples, an exclusive Los Angeles line. To ensure that his customers receive the right pair of glasses, CharacterEYES offers complimentary “eye wear makeovers,” a service that takes into account face shape, skin tone, and color preferences when choosing eye wear and lens materials.
“The right pair of glasses can completely change a person’s face,” he said. “It can make you look 10 years younger.”
In an office along Church Street that was originally a 1940s medical clinic, Tilley has worked his personality into the National Register of Historic Places building. The walls are painted in bright washes of secondary colors and the interior furniture is decidedly modern. Two eight-foot wooden guitars suspend from the ceiling—pendants handmade by the doctor himself.
“Woodworking is a hobby of mine,” he said. “During Christmastime, this place is full of nutcrackers I’ve made. You know, it all connects with design and creativity.”
Tilley says the decision to keep his small business in Downtown Franklin has as much to do with the artistic and friendly atmosphere as it does the type of relationships the area seems to hold.
“It’s a small-town feel with a metropolitan vibe,” he said. “There’s a close-knit feel between the businesses and the people.”
To learn more about CharacterEYES, visit its website at www.charactereyespc.com.