Some of the interest of antique glasses comes from the interest of seeing how people solved the problem of designing spectacles in an era before modern precision manufacturing and materials technology. Before the latter part of the 19th century, both lenses and antique glasses frames were individually hand made by skilled artisans, meaning that each piece has its own character and appearance. Even more recent vintage spectacles often have a whiff of handmade, sturdy production values about them.
Despite this intriguing “quirkiness”, visionwear also has a timeless quality, for the simple reason that it needs to provide a view to members of the same species – humans. The basic size of the human head, the positioning of the eyes, the manner in which those eyes develop astigmatism, and other fundamental features are the same today as they were in the days of Johannes Gutenberg or William Shakespeare.
Therefore, there is a familiarity to antique glasses’ design as well, since they were made to fit people physically similar to us, however different their culture and outlook might have been.
The main pieces that made up a pair of antique glasses from George Washington’s day are still mostly to be found on modern eyeglasses as well. Familiarizing yourself with the terminology for these parts will help you on your quest through the interesting annals of past eyewear. The way these parts were made for a specific pair of glasses will help you pinpoint the era in which they were manufactured.
Knowing the correct terms for these parts also helps you to communicate quickly and clearly when you are discussing eyeglass matters with other collectors, or describing what you are looking for to dealers. There is only a limited number of parts in most antique glasses, so it is not difficult to remember the phrases once you have gone over them once or twice.
Lenses: these are the transparent glass, crystal, or stone discs that are fitted into the frames, and which provide the actual vision correction for the wearer. They are mostly round in older spectacles, and round or oval in more recent antique glasses, though some odd shapes also exist.
Eyerims – also known as eyewires, these are the part of the glasses which actually surround the lenses and hold them in place, connecting them to the rest of the eyeglass frames. There is usually a groove on their inner edge which allows the lenses to be fitted snugly into place and not fall out unexpectedly.
Bridge – this is the piece of material (metal, plastic, tortoiseshell, etc.) which connects the two eyerims. There have been quite a few different forms of bridges, which often makes them useful for identification, too. Some are meant to rest on the nose, others to arch above it.
Nose pads – found on the inner, lower curve of the eyerims, these small pads (which may be anything from tiny, smooth metal plates to actual padding) rest on the nose in lieu of the bridge and keep the glasses perched comfortably there. Some may be lever operated in the case of finger-piece mountings for pince nez.
Temples – these are the long, slim arms extending back from the outer edges of the eyerims, often to hook behind the ears. They appear on some antique glasses and are absent from others, mostly because of aesthetic considerations.