One of the most fascinating aspects of the history of vintage eyeglasses – besides all the strange, fantastic shapes and creative designs produced over the years – is the association of various eccentric people with the world of vintage eyewear. Benjamin Franklin, with his sturdy aphorisms, scientific curiosity, and somewhat devil-may-care youth, added a touch of his personality to the history of antique bifocal lenses (one of his inventions).
Teddy Roosevelt, Mahatma Gandhi, John Lennon, and Leon Trotsky are all associated with certain styles of glasses, too. The history of cat eye glasses frames from the 1950s and 1960s is closely associated with another highly colorful but nowadays mostly forgotten individual – Michael Birch.
Michael Birch, who was destined to become one of the foremost western carvers of netsuke in the Japanese style after his semi-voluntary retirement from the eyeglasses world in the early 1970s, also left his mark on the design of cat eye glasses frames during their heyday in the Fifties and Sixties. His success had an undoubted effect on the global fashion scene as it related to vintage cats eye glasses.
Birch’s personal approach to cats eye glasses frames design
A fanatically driven artist and designer, Birch produced his own designs through a long, painstaking process, rather than relying on design teams and just selling the product like modern CEOs such as Apple’s Steve Jobs. The British designer would draw an initial concept, then erase it repeatedly, attempting to draw a further refined design each time until he was finally satisfied that the glasses had been honed to perfection.
Peppery and temperamental, Michael Birch once trampled a defective batch of cat eye glasses frames after molding, smashing them under the soles of his shoes in outrage at their poor quality. His design genius shone through in the numerous innovative, dramatic cats eye glasses frames that were produced at his firm, however, including a number of models that achieved international notoriety.
Birch & Green and the breaking of German dominance
At the time, during the early 1950s, the world of cat eye glasses frames was powerfully dominated by German concerns operating out of West Germany. Birch & Green, Michael Birch’s firm, was the first chink in the Teutonic fashion industry’s armor and gave other firms the confidence to enter the market – as well as demonstrating to customers that non-German frames could also be stylish and unique.
Michael Birch’s manufacturing techniques always showed an experimental urge – his first attempt was to make fiberglass cats eye glasses frames. However, vacuum-forming, another leading Birch technological adaptation to glasses manufacture, soon displaced fiberglass.
Later on, moving into the 1960s, Birch started using acetate and aluminum in many of his creations, thus encouraging their use among imitators, too – though both had earlier been used by the Germans. (It is perhaps interesting to note that the Germans held an advantage in the mid-20th century in eyeglasses just as they had throughout the 17th, 18th, and early 19th centuries, before the Americans supplanted them temporarily during the mid to late 19th centuries.)
Though half a century has passed since Michael Birch began designing and manufacturing cat eye glasses frames, many of them are designs so bold that they almost look like the creations of a modern fashion house – including highly unusual almost-rimless cats eye glasses such as the China Doll supra and the Polyanna, which will be examined more closely in the next article.