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