I started researching vintage eyeglasses purely by accident. I came across a pair of pince nez in a case at a vide grenier (French version of yard or car boot sale). One of the lenses was missing, but the glasses and particularly its case were really interesting. I liked the antiquity of them and at 1 euro thought they were worth buying. I dug into their history, listed them on my shop and they sold almost immediately.
There is definitely a passion for things vintage these days. For many it is the look (my personal favourite), others the feel good factor of recycling, reusing, etc, or for some simply that quality lasts. Or all of the above.
It shouldn’t have surprised me that there would also be an interest in vintage eyeglasses, but until those pince nez, it had never crossed my mind. I’ll bet it hadn’t crossed many of yours as well. After all, you can buy modern, funky, even vintage looking glasses in a shop or online these days. So why bother with the real deal?
You can get a truly unique pair of glasses.
They are very well made (as they have stood the test of time).
They are often made of precious metals (gold, silver), if not unusual plastics like celluloid or Bakelite.
They are generally a fraction of the cost of new ones.
They will usually come with an old prescription lens in them. This will require changing to your own prescription or plain glass if a prescription is not required. The cost of putting in your prescription lenses is not expensive. (Generally around the 20 to 30 mark for basic.)
It’s actually really easy to change lenses. First check with your local optician to see if they will do it. If not, there are a number of optician services online that offer to put new lenses into old glasses. (At first glance – Glasses Direct (UK), My Eye Wear 2 Go (USA), Optically (Australia) and more). Once found, simply send/take in your vintage eyeglasses in, with your prescription. They will return as a pair you can wear.
Do make sure you consider the types of frames when you are purchasing vintage eyeglasses. Many older eyeglasses, particularly from the 1920s, are made from possibly brittle plastic. And many from the 1930s are almost frameless, with fine metal wiring. These can be trickier consequently more expensive to change lenses in, so do check with your lens provider before you buy if you are uncertain.
What to look for
The more vintage eyeglasses I have found, the more research I have enjoyed doing. Truly old glasses, say 19th century, are the easiest in fact to date as they are quite well documented. They are often small in size, particularly the lenses, so be sure to check the measurements.
Measurements generally include the width across the face (hinge to hinge), the size of the bridge/nose piece, and the arm length (most often from hinge to curvature of the arm). You should make a note of your own preferred measurements. The easiest way to do this is take an existing pair of favourite glasses and measure them. Then, when you see a pair you like, you can compare your measurements with those given (or if they are not given, you know what to ask for).
Iconic Vintage Eyeglasses
The 1950s/60s are probably the most well known eyeglasses style with their iconic cat eye or browline. Most people are familiar with the cat eye style. These are glasses that are more teardrop in shape and point up at the outside of the eye. As for browline, you have probably seen them in films but never actually knew what they were called.
“Browline glasses are a style of eyeglass frames which were very popular during the 1950s and 1960s. In the most common construction the upper portion of the frame (the “brows”) were made of plastic, with the remainder of the frame (the bridge and eyewires, or “chassis”) to be made of metal. The chassis inserts into the brows and is held in place by screws.” – Wikipedia
The top picture to the right is a typical browline.
Dawn of Plastic
The 1920s is also popular, think Harold Lloyd, particularly since the Great Gatsby film came out. Essentially they are round, often with a tortoiseshell design. Also many of the glasses from this time started to use the new ‘plastics’, such as Celluloid and Bakelite.
Bakelite is a rigid form of plastic invented in the early 1900s, becoming really popular in the 1930s, and was often used for eyeglass frames. If frames are Bakelite, anticipate to pay a bit more for them than many other plastics. They can also be brittle, so be careful of cracks. Many opticians won’t change lenses if the frame is cracked. There are a few ways you can test if eyeglasses have used Bakelite. (I always test my eyeglasses to try and determine what they are made of.)
If you have always wished to wear a well known brand, but find their prices too high, then you should definitely look at vintage eyeglasses. Whether it’s Ray-Bans, Lacoste, or any other quintessential make they will be cheaper, unless particularly rare, than their more modern counterpart.
Also by buying vintage, not only will you have your favourite brand, but will also have something more unique as the older they get the less of them there are. But consider the price. Fakes abound. A seller should be able to give good details, research or, even better, authentication (though not always possible with vintage). If the price seems too cheap, or expensive, make sure you do a little research yourself before buying.
If you don’t wish to go down the route of changing lenses in vintage eyeglasses, but love that vintage look, then consider vintage sunglasses instead. They are generally not prescription (though not always, so do check) and can be worn right away.
One of my favourite types of vintage sunglasses are clip ons. They are making a comeback, but the modern version can’t hold a candle to the classic version. Clips on sunglasses are exactly what they say on the tin in that they ‘clip on’ to your existing eyeglasses, turning them into sunglasses. They are simple in design; tinted lenses with wire clips, often gold if vintage, fixed to the back which hook over the frames of your glasses. These were particularly popular in the 1950s and 60s.
Buying Vintage Eyeglasses
Now, if you are like me and you prefer vintage eyeglasses, or maybe would like your first pair, please do check out our shop section Eyeglasses & Sunglasses, where you will find a varied selection.
Here’s a taste of our Vintage Eyeglasses below
(Simply click on the the image of any vintage or antique tool you like to connect to the item in our shop.)