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Karla Klein Albertson

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Posted on Fri, Jul. 09, 2004
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The “Natacha” sunglasses, by Pierre Marly, were popular in the 1960s and ’70s, when colored, plastic frames made the eyewear a fashion statement.
The “Natacha” sunglasses, by Pierre Marly, were popular in the 1960s and ’70s, when colored, plastic frames made the eyewear a fashion statement.
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Antiques | Shades sport colorful history

For The Inquirer

With the current passion for retro styling, vintage sunglasses from the sleek to the outrageous have become popular collectibles with a practical purpose. Slip on the right pair, and you, too, can be James Dean or Audrey Hepburn for a day.

From a more scholarly viewpoint, sunglasses are a chapter in optical history, examined in a new book, Collectible Eyeglasses by Frederique Crestin-Billet, that features both antique and modern examples of eyewear. As part of his historical introduction, Crestin-Billet cites a passage by the Roman author Pliny the Elder (A.D. 23-79) mentioning that Emperor Nero held an emerald to his eye to view the gladiatorial games, perhaps the first sunglasses of the rich and famous.

Portraits and miniatures from the early 19th century occasionally depict people wearing small tinted spectacles, which give them a sort of John-Lennon-in-the-Sixties look. But early protective lenses were more a matter of therapy than style.

In the caption for a pair from the 1800s with tortoiseshell frames, Crestin-Billet writes, "Today, tinted glasses are associated with the great outdoors, sport, and sunshine, but this has not always been the case. Since antiquity, people have found the color green relaxing for the eyes, believing it to have beneficial properties."

On the other hand, he also quotes an English lifestyle guide from 1860 written by a noble lady, who said, "If the eyesight is weak, blue or smoked tinted glass is more suitable. Green lenses are utterly loathsome!"

I recently talked with David Fleishman, a retired eye surgeon, who has recently devoted much of his energy to establishing a Web site,, which will serve as headquarters for information and research on optical history.

Fleishman says, "If you look into Samuel Pepys' diary, begun in 1660, he wrote about his eyes being irritated and bothering him. He thought that if he got some green lenses his eyes would feel better. In a later entry, he had acquired the glasses and his eyes felt better."

A most useful aspect of the Web site is a comprehensive essay, "Eyeglasses through the Ages." One interesting section mentions the important role of Philadelphia, where John McAllister Sr. established the first optical shop in America in 1799. By 1815, McAllister was making and marking his own precious metal frames, one of which is illustrated in the text.

Like Fleishman, John W. Tull, of York, is a serious collector of antique eyewear and serves as the corresponding secretary and treasurer of the Ocular Heritage Society. He says, "By the 19th century, eyeglasses were getting fairly common. The McAllister firm made high-end frames of silver and gold.

"I collect many things in the optical field, but mainly eyeglasses. I was an ophthalmologist, my wife was an optician, so we started collecting many years ago and now have thousands of pairs. The run-of-the-mill things are very common and can be found at any antique show or shop. So old glasses are around, but the very early ones are harder to come by."

The therapeutic and protective function of tinted lenses lasted well into the 20th century, when they became necessary gear for people who worked or played outdoors. Collectors can find a wide variety of tinted goggles - often held on by fabric and elastic straps - for motorists, cyclists and pilots.

Various types of "aviator" sunglasses with metal frames, popularized by Ray-Ban, were manufactured after World War II. By the 1950s, what was once part of a uniform became a style accessory for men.

Developments in the ability to mold and color plastic during the last century made fashionable sunglasses affordable for all adults, and even children. There was no limit to the shapes that could be designed, and with 1960s mod and hippie styles in vogue, fantasy took over.

While early spectacles may appeal to optical professionals, collectors of vintage clothing often seek out the colorful sunglasses of the last 50 years. Millers: Collecting Fashion and Accessories by Carol Harris shows several owl-like 1960s pairs that sell for less than $40, including a striped pink and orange Day-Glo model.

Sunglasses even turn up in the high-end couture auctions offered at Doyle New York. The April sale offered an octagonal 14-karat gold pair designed by jewelry guru Kenneth Jay Lane, as well as a group of vintage French examples.

Beneath a picture of some startling wraparound sunglasses, Crestin-Billet quotes designer Alain Mikli as saying that his glasses are still "just as much for seeing as being seen." However stylish they may become, tinted glasses still function as they did in Samuel Pepys day: to soothe and protect our tired eyes.

Resources on the subject:

Collectible Eyeglasses, by Frederique Crestin-Billet, originally in French, has been published in a 2004 English edition by Flammarion ($14.95). Tinted lenses for various uses appear in the chapters on antique, modern and sports eyeglasses.

More bibliography and resources for collectors are listed in the back.

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