Throughout the history of old eye glasses, people have made and used cases to keep their eyewear safe when it was not being worn. This habit continues to this day, with plastic, vinyl, and leather eyeglass cases or sheathes being used to shelter glasses against the scrapes, scratches, and outright breakage that the world can inflict. This was even more important with antique eye glasses, where replacement was difficult and having a pair broken might mean weeks of near-blindness until they could be replaced.
Many historic cases for old eye glasses are splendid works of art quite different from the plain, workmanlike types favored today. If you have an interest in vintage spectacles, then collecting cases from the past is another option to bulk out your collection with beautiful and significant objects. Cases were made from a variety of materials, and being able to identify these with some accuracy will let you pick out those made for old eye glasses, rather than more recent vinyl equivalents.
Shagreen cases for old eye glasses
One of the most attractive, pleasing substances used to craft cases for old eye glasses was shagreen, which is made from the skin of sharks. This was a favored leather for decorative purposes for centuries, and it is only the advent of synthetics in the current era that finally saw shagreen take its place beside other substances used in the past, but no longer employed for crafting.
Sharkskin is covered with hard, bumpy scales which project above the surface like thousands of nodules embedded in the fish's leathery hide. When used for shagreen, the skin was prepared using a painstaking process, and the surface filed and sanded smooth. This left an overall sheet of leather with thousands of ground-down scales embedded in it.
Dyeing the resulting leather colored the skin itself but left the scales or nodules their natural whitish color, creating a piece of colored leather with a fine, beautiful, stippled pattern of innumerable pale dots on the colored background. The leather was molded to the appropriate shape, and often coated in shellac to produce an attractive gloss on the surface.
Shagreen cases for vintage eyeglasses are often highly attractive items, and are still suitable for their original purpose if they are not cracked or damaged. They are as much a part of old eye glasses as hand-ground rock crystal lenses or a black ribbon to secure a monocle, and make the perfect finishing touch to a set of vintage pince nez.
Tortoiseshell cases for old eye glasses
It is perhaps interesting that the products of various sea creatures were so favored by those designing cases for old eye glasses, but tortoiseshell from the hawksbill sea turtle was also used for extremely striking containers for vintage eyewear. These cases are not made legally any longer (and perhaps not at all) due to the endangered status of the hawksbill turtle, but older specimens make a very attractive display case or carrying case for your Oxfords or astigs.
With its gleaming surface and marbled blend of attractive colors, tortoiseshell is still at first glance indistinguishable from the better grades of plastic. However, if you run your finger over the surface, you will feel slight whorls, the result of the tortoiseshell's organic origins. Broken cases can be mended by heating them and pressing them firmly together, which will fuse the parts strongly again without the need to introduce any kind of glue – a property unique to this material.