In their 700-year history, eyeglasses have taken many forms and have been regarded at different times as heirlooms, fashion items and social embarrassments. Today they represent a fascinating area for the collector.
Once past 40, many people find that it's not just camels that are tough to get through the eye of a needle; cotton is pretty tricky, too. While shortsightedness can be a reminder of time's march to us, to our
ancestors it could be a very serious blow. They couldn't just nip down to the optician. While the rich could probably employ someone to do various fiddly tasks for them, the poor just had to put up with it.
The magnifying possibilities of glass lenses were noted by Roger Bacon in 1286, but the name of the person who riveted two hand-held glasses together to make the first spectacles is unknown, although he was probably Italian - the Venetians were far-famed for the quality of their glass and lens grinding - and worked in the late 13th century.
Over the next couple of centuries, the focus of spectacle making shifted north to Holland and
Nuremberg. The high cost of preparing the lenses fell only gradually, but spectacles were seen as status symbols, signifying great learning, and were passed on as heirlooms.
A GRIPPING SPECTACLE
The basic design of spectacles changed little in this time; frames of bone, horn, wood or leather held the lenses and rested on the bridge of the nose; there were no side pieces. Then, in the 17th century,
Nuremberg spectacle makers began making frames from a single piece of wire, usually copper. A sprung steel bridge, gripping the nose, was introduced about 1690.
By this time, spectacle-making was well established in Britain; by the 18th century
London led the world. In the 1720s, Edward Scarlett of Dean Street in Soho, produced the first spectacles with side pieces. These did not test on or hook over the ears, as in modern examples, but ended in rings which gripped the temples and could be tied with ribbon. The rings
were sometimes bound with linen to soften heir grip. Later, spectacles, usually silver-framed, were made with telescopic side pieces that could fit under a periwig.
As spectacles became more common toward the end of the 18th century, myopic dandies and aristocrats sought new ways of distinguishing themselves from humble clerks and governesses. The specialized visual aids that catered for this fashionable market included hand-held scissor spectacles and single-lensed quizzers, both of which were worn on a cord round the neck, and monocles.
Lorgnettes were invented in 1825 by Robert Bate. They were equipped with a long handle, into which the lenses folded when not in use, and were particularly favoured by fashionable ladies, who were concerned not to bear the shame of being seen wearing spectacles in public. This aversion also led to the introduction of the first rimless spectacles towards the end of the 19th century.
A collection of eyeglasses can encompass pieces of scientific, social and historical interest and
- particularly in the case of lorgnettes made for fashionable ladies of the Regency and Victorian periods - ones that are decorative objects in their own right, framed with precious metals and cased with gemstones.
Not long ago, collecting antique spectacles was a cheap hobby, but not any more. Medical and scientific antiques have gained in popularity, and spectacles have been swept along with them; prices in specialist dealers and auction rooms tend to be high, for older items
and ones in fine cases and in precious metals in particular. There are still bargains to be had, though, if you're prepared to hunt around shops, markets and small salerooms off the beaten track may well have the odd item of interest at a reasonable price. It helps to know the right thing when you see it. Various museums, including the Science Museum in London, have good displays.
Spectacles, lorgnettes and monocles are worth more when sold complete with their original cases, particularly if both are in good condition Some cases can be very elaborate indeed, and may be studded with semiprecious stones. Leather and base metal cases are at the bottom of the price range, while materials
such as tortoiseshell are in between.
Tortoiseshell can be hard to identify; it has been much copied this century in various forms of plastic. Tortoiseshell frames are darker than tortoiseshell cases as different turtles we e used. Genuine tortoiseshell frames look black, but glow red when held up to a bright light. The substance is strangely attractive to mice, and it's not unusual to find a frame that's been nibbled.
As spectacles, particularly silver-framed pairs, were customarily passed down through the generations, they have been much used. The condition of the lenses is not as important as the condition of the frame. A certain amount 0 scratching is inevitable, and should be seen as a sign that the item is genuine. Cracks an I chips in the glass, however, should be reflected in a lower price.
Do-it-yourself running repairs are common on both antique and modern spectacles, because doing without them has always been such a nuisance. Side pieces and bridges are particularly vulnerable. Signs of tampering should lead to a reduction in price, so look carefully. Spectacles are such personal items, though, that signs of home repair - especially an obviously old repair - may actually make a purchase more attractive to you.