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 in our 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 one of a kind 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, even the brand names.
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 30 to 50 euros/dollars/pounds, depending on service and country.)
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 on google – Peep Eyewear (UK), Eyelgasses.com (USA), Optically (Australia) and more). Once found, simply send/take in your vintage eyeglasses as well as 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).
Of note, eyeglasses before the 1950s generally are smaller than what we are used to today. Eyeglasses were a necessity rather than a fashion statement, so people weren’t as keen for them to be too noticeable. So if you are purchasing glasses pre- mid century vintage, check measurements carefully.
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. They are what all geeks, mathematicians and scientists are depicted in. They usually have a dark line across the top, resembling eyebrows or a mono brow, hence the name. Browlines can in fact be quite thin as well, and usually then made with gold or silver.
Dawn of Plastic
The 1920s is also popular, think Harold Lloyd look, 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 for 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. Clip-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.
I would be remiss in this post if I don’t include some extra information about French eyeglasses as most of the vintage eyeglasses I sell were made in France. France’s optometry history deserves a whole write up of its own, but to be concise here the French were not always keen on eyeglasses. They preferred discrete use, so the folding lorgnette and monocle were particularly popular until the Art Deco period.
Eyeglasses in France only came into popularity in the 1920s when Georges Lissac opened the first optical shop in Paris. He went on to form the SIL (Société Industrielle de Lunetterie). Lissards most famous brand was Amor, which made gold filled frames and are still sought after today. When the French decide to focus on something (see what I did there?), they definitely go all out on quality and craftsmanship.
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 of eras, styles and even cases.
Here’s a taste of our Vintage and Antique Eyeglasses below:
(Simply click on the the image of any eyeglass style you would like to see in our shop.)