Pince nez first came into fashion in the United States of America during the Civil War period. Just as the War of 1812 temporarily halted imports of high quality lenses to the New World and prompted a brief “lens grinding renaissance” in which American producers sought to supply the lack from their own workshops, so the world of old specs was changed by the Civil War.
The German-American inventor, John Jacob Bausch, first experimented with pince nez with hard rubber frames prior to the Civil War, but experienced only limited success – spectacles with temples were still all the rage and few wanted his pince nez initially. However, the Civil War was a watershed in the history of old specs. Supplies from Europe were once again disrupted, and the materials for making frames for old specs were in short supply in any case, since the war effort consumed large amounts of all available types of metal.
Pince nez succeeded in this period for two main reasons – being made domestically, they were still available, unlike European-made spectacles; and their sparing use of metals (ensured by the omission of temples) ensured that they were economical even during the metal shortages caused by the war. Pince nez achieved preeminence in this period and were not to be dethroned until after the First World War.
Pince nez materials technology – old specs with Zyl Eyerims
Pince nez were made in countless different configurations and styles, as well as in a whole range of materials, from rolled gold to vulcanized rubber. Some of the most intriguing-looking pince nez are those which were made with Zyl, or plastic, eyerims rather than metal. The bridge and other fittings were made out of metal, but the eyerims themselves are Zyl and have a very distinctive appearance – one that is especially stylish and yet dignified and professorial.
Zyl pince nez are intriguing old specs because they represent the marriage of an older style of antique eyeglasses with more modern-seeming materials technology. They bespeak the rapid evolution of technique and material during the 19th and early 20th centuries. Not only will these glasses look good on you, but they also give you a glimpse of the changing world of fashion and technology as mirrored in vintage eyeglass frames.
Screw rims and screwless Zyl rims on old specs (pince nez)
Many of the Zyl-rimmed pince nez are antique eyeglasses made with a fingerpiece bridge as well – one where the plaquettes that attach the vintage eyeglasses to the nose are operated by a pair of small levers mounted to the bridge. You may encounter Zyl rims with practically any configuration, however. The large number of producers at some times helped to ensure diversity of form and function that is lacking in our own time, dominated as it is by huge conglomerates which produce a uniform product.
Screw rimmed Zyl pince nez are vintage eyewear to which it is easy to fit new lenses. (Of course, if you are just collecting, leaving the old lenses in place is probably a prudent step). The eyerims of these pince nez are split to allow insertion of new lenses, and are closed by a screw when a lens is in place. Thus, to add modern lenses, you only need to carefully loosen the screw, add the lenses, and tighten the screw again.
Screwless old specs with Zyl lenses are a bit more problematic. The original lenses were inserted while the Zyl was still hot, so that it would shrink, harden, and hold them permanently in place. You can still insert new lenses in a vintage pair of Zyl pince nez, however, by heating them carefully, removing the old lenses when the eyerims expand, inserting new lenses, and letting the eyerims cool and shrink onto these. This works best with eyerims that are smooth and intact – if there are chips or cracks, the eyerims of your old specs may split at that point when heated.