The demand for vintage eyewear shows that
everything old is new again
Joanne F. Schell
Some of the
bolder styles of today take their cues from vintage
frames, such as this 1960s model from Sàfilo USA. Photo
courtesy of Sàfilo Group
Allyn Scura, a designer and
collector of vintage frames, was antique shopping in North
Carolina when she came upon her first pair of vintage
spectacles. She wore them as sunglasses in New York City and
was met with many inquiries from people on the street,
fascinated with her vintage frames.
Realizing there was an untapped
market for vintage eyewear, she began to search out older
frames to sell and hit the jackpot. She found and sold more
than 5,000 unused pairs. A business success story was born:
Scura has amassed a collection of more than 60,000 antique
Selling and collecting vintage
eyewear has become a passion for many eyecare professionals.
Dating from the 1800s to the late 1980s, vintage frames offer
the wearer a unique style and a piece of history.
"Since I started in the optical
industry, I have been fascinated with the quality and
craftsmanship of vintage frames," says Dale Thompson, owner
and operator of Precise Eyeglass Repair in Cincinnati, Ohio.
"They have an amazing amount of detail and character."
Finding vintage frames that are in
"sellable" condition can be difficult. Used eyewear can suffer
from a weak structure, making it an unworthy investment. "I
always bought vintage frames at the flea market in Chelsea
[New York]," says Scott Iseyama, partner at Allyn Scura
Eyewear, a San Clemente, Calif.-based virtual retailer. "They
would only last a few months at a time." Never-worn frames, he
says, help to ensure that the frame can stand up to the stress
of a lens installation.
Dr. David Fleishman's
offers a historical recount of "eyewear through the
ages," as well as thousands of photos and resources for
collectors. Here is an excerpt from a timeline of the
1286 Eyeglasses are made by
a lay person in
1300 The term eyeglasses is
used for the first time.
1728 London optician Edward
Scarlett is credited with developing side arms for
spectacles (he is the first to advertise them).
1752 James ayscough
invents the double-hinged temple.
1760 Benjamin Franklin
incorporates the idea of the split lens bifocal.
1825 George Airy corrects
his own astigmatism with a pair of sphero-cylindrical
1886 American Optical
produces the first ophthalmic lens in the United
Here's a list of vintage
frames that are in high demand and the people that made
frames--Mohandas Gandhi, Teddy Roosevelt
1940s Ray Ban Aviator
frames (1937)--Air Force fighter pilots, General Douglas
1950s Brow bar and thick
black zyl frames--Buddy Holly; cat eye/harlequin
frames--Marilyn Monroe, Ava Gardner, Rita
1960s Plastic and metal
frames--Malcolm X; Extra-large acetate frames--Jackie
Kennedy Onassis, Audrey Hepburn
tortoise frames--Andy Warhol, Robert Redford; Oversized
zyl and metal frames--Elton John
1980s Large tortoise metal
frames--Robert Downey Jr., Harrison Ford
Most dispensaries that sell vintage
eyewear deal in unused frames. Some frames can be found at
antique stores, but to obtain a large stock, family-operated
optical shops are often the best place to turn.
"Our biggest purchases are from
people who had an optometrist in the family," says Jennie
Wilson, owner of Vintage I Wear, an online dispensary.
"We get most of our frames from
optical shops going out of business," adds Marilyn Welch of Ed
Welch Antiques, a Maine-based dealer of vintage eyewear.
"Dispensaries that have been around for 50 or more years might
have an inventory of frames that could not be returned, and
owners want to get rid of that inventory when they close."
Instead of actively pursuing the
frames, many dispensaries post inquiries on the
Once dispensers get their hands on
enough frames, pricing issues have to be considered. Often,
frames can be sold and melted down for reuse, so an interested
ECP needs to make selling the frames to a dispensary a more
attractive proposition. The first move for an ECP is to make
an offer for the frames at a price that is above scrap value.
In terms of retail, the current
structures of supply and demand determine the price,
regardless of when the frames were produced.
"Like most businesses, pricing is
based on what the market will bear," explains Iseyama. "This
includes the impact of competitive products and consumer
Sometimes, however, there are other
issues to consider. "If a frame is incredibly rare, it's going
to be more expensive," says Jamie Niblock, director of retail
for Robert Marc, a New York-based dispensary and dealer of
"Gold-filled vintage frames are
quite expensive because of the materials. Frames haven't been
made like that since the gold standard changed in the 1970s,"
OLD FRAMES, NEW
There are also some ophthalmic
issues to consider when opting to service and sell vintage
"Repair of vintage frames is very
similar to modern frames; the quality of the repair is based
on the expertise and skill of the repair technician," says
"Unless you have specific
information on when and where a frame was made, it may be hard
to service or find replacement parts," adds Niblock.
Most people wear the frames for
function. "People rarely ask about plano lenses," says Wilson.
Making sure that today's lenses can be used in the older
frames is key. For example, not all of today's high-index lens
wearers can use older frames.
"Many vintage frames have
prescription limitations," says Thomp-son. "With today's
advances in high-index materials, the ranges of prescriptions
have drastically increased.
For some older frames, edge
thickness is a concern. And, as with some of today's glasses,
smaller frames may not accommodate progressive lenses, but
short corridor PALs help address the problem.
With more than 100 years' worth of
eyewear available, the vintage eyewear market is hard to
"While it's still somewhat of a
niche product, the label is as broad as pop music," Iseyama
Wilson gets most of her orders from
the coasts--she also works with prop departments on plays and
movie sets to fulfill costume needs.
Subculture groups may also make
demands for period eyewear. Thompson's typical antique eyewear
consumer might be a Civil War re-enactor, while Scura attracts
Rockabilly enthusiasts who are immersed in a 1950s lifestyle.
On a broader scale, 1960s- and
1970s-style frames are making a comeback, as evidenced by the
creation of new frames that nod to that mod-type style.
Generally speaking though, the vintage eyewear enthusiast will
have a collection of frames instead of a single multi-use
"The person wearing vintage eyewear
on the street might have something modern and classic at home
as well," says Niblock. "It's an interesting time where people
are seeking all types of looks."
|Hard-bridge and spring-bridge pince-nez frames
date back to the 1880s. They are collectables more than
usable vintage wear.
||Pince-nez from 1880 through