Pince Nez – the Early Social History of Old Fashioned Glasses

After their rough start in America when John Jacob Bausch (one of the founding partners of Bausch & Lomb, a major eyeglass firm which survives to this day) first made a pair of hoop springs with vulcanized rubber, pince nez quickly rose to a quite eminent position among old fashioned glasses.

The American Civil War first boosted them into prominence, when imports of spectacles from Europe were disrupted by conflict and materials costs skyrocketed thanks to the war effort. With less competition from Europe and a need for eyewear that would require less metal to make, pince nez soon emerged as one of the dominant vision aids in North America during the time of Lincoln.

old fashioned pince nez glasses   Pince nez were not old fashioned glasses at the time, and in fact came to represent the cutting edge of fashion. Their status in public perceptions changed over time, as is the case with all fashions and styles. It is intriguing to see how the image of these vintage glasses altered over the course of just a few generations, maintaining their popularity but appealing in succession to several very diverse demographics.

Part of the fascination of pince nez today is this history of their cultural meaning, and part is the sheer eccentric variety of glasses manufactured in workshops or painstakingly handmade by skilled artisans. Though most fall into the broad categories already mentioned – defined by their bridge and the arrangement of their plaquettes, or nose pads – the actual application of these principles to making a pair of pince nez ranged from the starkly Spartan to the intriguingly baroque.

Pince nez as a patrician emblem

            In their own era, pince nez were fairly expensive. Even mass produced pince nez included many tiny, precision-made moving parts which had to be hand-assembled, and since many pairs of pince nez were designed to be completely folding for convenience, this only added to the complexity of building a pair. By contrast, spectacles – with their simple hinges to secure the temples, and few or now other mechanical fittings – were relatively cheap.

Adding to the cost of pince nez was the fact that the best were tailor-made to fit a specific individual. The hoop spring or bridge, the plaquettes and the springs that held them, and the other fixtures, were best if custom-made or at least custom-adjusted to the facial structure of the wearer. Since the ability of the pince nez to stay on, yet remain comfortable, depended on how closely they fit the user’s nose, these antique eyeglasses were at their most effective when individually tailored.

old fashioned pince nez glasses With the prices so high, it is unsurprising that plebeian users had to content themselves with mass-produced spectacles, while those with patrician resources and aspirations (or at least a very comfortable salary, such as doctors, lawyers, clergymen, army officers, and so on) were those most able to indulge a taste for pince nez.

Eventually, pince nez came to symbolize moneyed status or scholarly achievement – instead of merely being one of its “perks”, they had become a badge as well. This can be seen in many older films when a snooty British aristocrat or American industrialist is shown wearing pince-nez.

There was another reason why people preferred pince nez to spectacles during the 19th and early 20th century period of old fashioned glasses, however – the extremely vigorous aesthetic objection by people of that time to wearing eyeglasses at all.

Overview: the Amazing World of Cat eye Glasses

Released from the fetters of stodginess by the changing times, it is perhaps hardly surprising that eyeglasses would explode into an efflorescence of colorful materials and ornate designs when they became fashionable for the first time in history. Cat eye glasses are one of the most memorable, persistent styles from that day and dominated the world of stylish eyewear for close to two decades.

The world of vintage eye glasses was not a staid or banal one – instead, it is a scene filled with highly eccentric alpha personalities whose quirks had a strong influence on the development of modern eyeglasses in general and high fashion glasses in particular.

cat eye glassesThere was no general rule about either the people or companies involved in the evolution of this distinctive visionwear. Some of the individuals were keenly scientific, while others were fiery, impulsive, creative prima donnas, while yet others were a blend of the two. Some companies had existed already for decades, and simply dipped into the new market for a share of the “pie”, while others were bold startups riding popular enthusiasm for cat eye glasses to overnight success.

In true competitive fashion, the jostling of the various cateye glasses manufacturers for space in this large and lucrative market produced many innovations as the companies tried to “one-up” each other with fresh salable features.

Not all developments occurred because of a Darwinian death-struggle between the major players, however. Many of the designers were passionate enough about the artistry of the glasses to pursue new avenues of creativity simply for the sake of seeing what they could do – an eyeglass equivalent, perhaps, of George Mallory’s reason for attempting Everest: “Because it’s there”.

German contributions to cat eye glasses

            Germany’s long history of precision optics and high quality lens grinding placed it in an excellent position to enter the cat eye glasses market, with both actual German firms and Austrian ones participating. Austria gave these glasses an immense boost in popularity because of the exciting cloak and dagger Cold War reputation of Vienna, which made the eyewear seem daring and chic, an artifact from a spy thriller rather than simple eyewear.

Rodenstock pioneered the use of celebrities such as race-car drivers and Sophia Loren to sell eyeglasses through advertising, and also made several important technical advances, such as eliminating reflections with magnesium fluoride coatings and making dual purpose indoor/outdoor cat’s eyes with photochromic lenses that darkened when exposed to ultraviolet light.

British contributions to cats eye glasses

         cat eye glasses   The British, especially as represented by Michael Birch, took the cat’s eye format of eyewear to its logical extreme in the direction of rimless glasses. Obviously, a pair of glasses could not be rendered completely rimless and still remain cat eye glasses – but Neville Chappell’s supra method, holding the lenses up with a slim wire tightened into a groove on the underside edge of the lens, made possible some of the lightest and least visible designs ever to appear during the Fifties and Sixties – many of them with an ultramodern look that would not look out of place in the 21st century.

American contributions to cat eye glasses

            Tura, American Optical, Bausch & Lomb, and Art-Craft all had significant contributions to make to the vintage eyeglasses evolution, with Tura perhaps making the largest impact. Tura’s all aluminum frames were a bold innovation at a time when most frames for these glasses were Zylonite embellished with a few touches of aluminum for the sake of style and rigidity.

Their pattern was imitated by such firms as Art-Craft and produced probably some of the most long-lasting vintage cat eye glasses in the world, as well as those featuring extraordinary anodized metallic colors that could not be duplicated in plastic at the time.

Cat Eye Prescription Glasses by Art-Craft and Bausch & Lomb

The finely made aluminum cat eye prescription glasses frames that Tura made at the start of the 1950s were initially a unique product of the American eyeglasses market at a time when other companies were using only small bands and slips of aluminum for decorative purposes on brows or temples. Durable, strong, and hypoallergenic, aluminum glasses frames soon came to be made by other companies in the United States who had the resources and technical know-how to do so.

Art-Craft Optical Co., Inc. of Rochester, New York was another American firm to successfully take up the banner of making aluminum cat eye prescription glasses frames. Appropriately in light of the avian symbol of the U.S.A., the founder of Art-Craft was one Charles J. Eagle, along with a German-American, Otto W. Dechau, continuing the long history of cross-fertilization between the American and German eyeglasses industries.

cat eye prescription glasses The company appeared in the final year of the First World War, and was headquartered for the next 83 years in the famous Pullman Building, itself a storied fixture of the town. During the late 1950s and early 1960s, the company began to produce cat eye glasses frames of its own, using aluminum with anodized coatings, engraving, crystals, and metal appliques quite similar to those made by Tura.

Art-Craft was a leader in high quality plastic cat eye glasses frames at the same time, and never focused completely on aluminum. Many of these frames were embellished with imported Austrian accessories such as metal brows, rhinestones, and so forth. Aluminum did become steadily more common in the company’s offerings during this period, however.

Bausch & Lomb and the cat eye glasses market

Bausch & Lomb, the company founded a century before by a German-American entrepreneur who made pince nez with vulcanized rubber frames and ultimately helped establish a powerful eyeglass industry in the United States during the American Civil War, also had their part to play in producing vintage eyeglasses.

However, the company did not attempt to compete heavily with Tura and Art-Craft in the aluminum branch of manufacturing. Instead, their cat’s eye glasses featured plastic frames, sporting such names as “Haiku” and “Provocative”. Blacks, browns, greys, and purples were the predominant colors among these rather plain, workmanlike frames.

American Optical

cat eye prescription glasses American Optical was another United States firm that entered the cat eye glasses vigorously during the Fifties. The company showed a certain awareness of the changing status of eyeglasses over the past half-century with advertisements that pointed out older glasses were meant solely to correct vision, while the newer types were just as good for vision correction but had the extra advantage of “flattering” the eyes and matching the complexion of the wearer’s face.

Many American Optical designs were light, airy creations with openwork transparent plastic temples and slender, decorated laminate or metal brows. Many featured slender metal bands that held the lenses in place from below – not close enough to the supra design patented by Neville Chappell to violate his legal protections, but operating on much the same principle and giving the eyerims a much more delicate, feminine appearance.

As part of their advertising efforts, American Optical produced a “Sun Glass Guide” which featured a sort of color wheel where the user could choose their favorite color chip for the Zylonite of their cat eye glasses frame and see the available lens styles, frame styles, and product code. As of 1956, American Optical was producing 28 different colors of Zylonite for their vintage eyewear, as the Guide reveals, showing the intense demand for these stylish glasses.

Cat Eyeglasses and Rodenstock’s Technical Improvements

The cat eyeglasses through which Sophia Loren directs a smoldering gaze in a 1960 Rodenstock ad are tinted to serve as sunglasses, but conceal a technical advance as well as providing a mysterious look to the famous actress’s eyes. Rodenstock had been a precision lens manufacturer for over 80 years when the advertisement and the sunglasses that it advertised appeared, so it is perhaps unsurprising that it should add another feature to the eyeglasses manufacturing repertoire at that time.

Up until that time, all glasses, whether of a regular type or cat eyeglasses, had been plagued with internal reflections in the lenses. These produced everything from a shimmer that could interfere with vision or cause a headache due to eyestrain, to ghost images that made it difficult to see where objects actually were in certain lights. Though the vision benefits of eyeglasses far outweighed these optical problems, the reflections that appeared in lenses were still a source of annoyance.

Rodenstock’s solution: magnesium fluoride coatings

            cat eyeglassesRodenstock’s cat eye glasses of this period bear some of the day’s most advanced coatings in a successful bid to quash the obnoxious internal reflections that had bothered eyeglass wearers throughout history up to that point. Magnesium fluoride coatings are transparent, but prevent the double reflections and ghost images that glass lenses create when uncoated.

The glasses produced by the German firm were therefore more comfortable to use than those offered by many competitors, though the use of magnesium fluoride naturally spread like wildfire through the eyeglasses world. Combined with celebrity endorsements and crisp, chic styling, this added freedom from reflections probably helps to explain Rodenstock’s explosive success at the time.

Photochromic lenses on Rodenstock cat eyeglasses

            Rodenstock lived up to its origins as a precision lens making enterprise by continuing to develop lens technology as the 1960s moved onwards. This was still the time when cat eye glasses were very common, though their popularity was waning slowing as round John Lennon glasses began to come to the fore by swift leaps and bounds.

The major advance that Rodenstock introduced in the late 1960s was the invention and sale of photochromic lenses. These lenses were placed into all types of frames, including cat eyeglasses, due to their potential for making glasses more comfortable to wear outside without impinging on their indoor use.

cat eyeglsses      Photochromic lenses are made by infusing clear glass or plastic lenses with silver chloride, or sometimes another kind of silver halide, in a microcrystalline state. This causes the lenses to darken when exposed to ultraviolet light, returning to a normal colorless state as soon as the ultraviolet light is removed. A quarter hour is the time that full darkening or lightening takes, though most of the darkening or lightening process takes place during the first sixty seconds.

This allowed the creation of dual purpose vintage eye glasses, which would be clear indoors and darken enough to act as sunglasses in bright natural light outdoors. More darkening would occur in strong sunlight than on a cloudy day, making the photochromic lenses automatically self-adjusting to a comfortable level of tinting. Rodenstock’s cat eyeglasses, when fitted with photochromic lenses, took the place of separate indoor glasses and sunglasses.

The solution wasn’t perfect because the glasses do not darken inside a vehicle, leaving drivers exposed to the full glare of the sun. However, the photochromic vintage eyeglasses offered plenty of utility nevertheless and the use of these special advanced lenses spread.

Rodenstock Cat Eyed Glasses from the 1950s and 1960s

Some tales from the world of eyeglass history illustrate how a single hard-driving individual with a strong, relentless personality can alter the course of vintage eyeglasses history. Michael Birch’s rise during the 1950s is an excellent example of a newcomer’s potential for sudden success in the field of cat eyed glasses, as the failed ice cream maker seized the initiative and made a fortune with starting capitol of £15 and a sketch pad.

In other cases, a long-established business shows how it achieves mastery over the market by adapting to the new circumstances brought about by the flow of time, picking up fads when they emerge and dropping them when interest in them dies down. Rodenstock GmbH is a company from the 19th century that made major contributions to the cat eye glasses era of the mid 20th century, and went on afterward to remain a strong player in the eyewear market of today.

Rodenstock originated in 1877 by one Josef Rodenstock, who gave his name to the new firm. The company started out as an optical lens maker, as well as a manufacturer of barometers and eyeglass frames. Josef Rodenstock was slightly in advance of his time in that he refused to view vision problems as a revolting personal defect but rather a slight mechanical maladjustment of the eye.

cat eyed glasses     On this basis, he also developed the idea that eyeglasses were not a badge of shame and puling weakness, but a logical method for restoring normal eyesight to people hampered by a visual disadvantage. It was his grandson Rolf Rodenstock, however, who was ultimately to oversee the dynamic era that witnessed the production of Rodenstock’s notable cat eyed glasses.

Rolf Rodenstock reconfigured the company for successful global competition and oversaw one of its most remarkable intervals of expansion. One of his most fruitful methods for promoting the brand was the introduction of celebrity marketing in the early 1960s, but the success of Rodenstock can be traced to the excellent German lens industry that had existed since the Renaissance, too.

Sophia Lauren and Rodenstock’s cat eye glasses

            Current trends, Rodenstock’s new approach to advertising, and the German firm’s technical expertise all appear in the cat eyed sunglasses that the company produced around 1960. Rodenstock’s cat eye glasses, whether made for sun protection or vision correction, were only conservatively cat eyed, with large, rounded-rectangular lenses much like modern reading glasses rather than the narrow, tilted ovals that Tura and other firms added to their glasses.

The lenses were slightly tilted to produce a hint of cat eye, and the brows offered most of the stylistic elementals. Starting slender near the bridge, they rose outward in a gull-winged curve, widening as they did so to end in an upturned outer end. These elegant but dramatic brows imparted most of the cat eye glasses look to the Rodenstock creations of this period.

cat eyed glasses    Interestingly, Rodenstock produced cat eyed glasses for both men and women, rather than just for the female market. Male versions were less noticeably feline than those meant for the ladies, but still featured a tilt and slightly upturned brows, though usually with masculine squared-off ends.

Rodenstock was actually the first company to use celebrities in its ads for product promotion. The cat eyed sunglasses that the German company made in 1960 were sold with an ad that showed Sophia Loren directing a wicked, toothy grin at the viewer, her gaze made more knowing and provocative by the angles of a pair of Rodenstock cat eye glasses. Other ads featured German race-car drivers and other noted people of the time.

Rodenstock made important advances in the technical side of glasses, too, and not merely in advertising – a topic examined more closely in the next article.

Ian Prince’s Interchangeable cats eye glasses from the Fifties

Vintage eyeglasses designers, just like their modern counterparts, have striven to offer something new and different to their clientele with each release. In doing so, they have created a fascinating panoply of styles, gimmicks, and quirky details which immensely enrich the history of vintage eyewear and reveal the endless eccentricity of which the human mind is capable. In the days of the Fifties, when fashion was bursting out in an exuberant flowering following the austerity of the war years, Ian Prince, an English company, made some of the most unusual cats eye glasses of the period.

Since eyeglasses had become a fully acceptable fashion accessory and statement of good taste during this time – thanks in great measure to the need for skilled workers during the early 20th century, necessitating the education of clever children with poor eyesight and thus making the donning of eyewear a mainstream activity – people naturally wanted glasses for every occasion.

Changing cat eyes glasses to suit your mood or the circumstances you were in (shopping, at the beach, at a party, working, etc.) was a good way for people to display their fashion sense, but required them to buy several pairs of glasses and keep them on hand at most times. Buying several pairs was an expensive option, and carrying three or four pairs of glasses at all times was burdensome for anyone lacking a footman to carrying the items for them (that is, the vast majority of people).

cats eye glasses   Ian Prince, an English company of the time, came up with an intriguing technical solution for cats eye glasses construction, which may be unique in the annals of eyewear history: the “Maskerade”.

The Maskerade interchangeable trim for cat eye glasses

            The basic Maskerade cats eye glasses pair was a plain, transparent set of eyewear, with a mildly developed cat’s eye shape. The temples were also made out of clear Zylonite with embedded wires to keep them stiff and hard. If this had been the extent of the Maskerade’s features, it would have been a very drab and eminently forgettable entry in the vintage eyeware market.

However, the designers also made six different colored “masks” or interchangeable trims to attach to the Maskerade to change its appearance. These snapped into place and so could be changed in a matter of seconds for a completely different look. Each was made in one piece out of Zylonite, and fitted over the brows, bridge, and inner curve of the eyerim to give something of the exotic look of a masquerade vizard from the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries.

The colors were all finely speckled, to give a detailed look almost like exotic (and half-transparent) otherworldly leather. The colors included black speckles on a clear background for an extremely fine-grained “houndstooth” pattern, dark wine red (perhaps the most opulent looking tint), a rich aqua blue, bright red, hot pink, and a light orange-brown. Thus, the woman wearing the cat eye glasses could change from passionate red to cool and collected aqua in a moment.

cats eye glasses   The Maskerade was one of the most unusual solutions to the human wish for flexible fashions. Of course, it suffered somewhat from the same problem as carrying multiple pairs of glasses, which probably explains why its popularity was limited. The interchangeable trims were smaller than extra pairs of glasses, but they still represented something extra that needed to be carried, which could get lost, and so forth.

Nevertheless, this intriguing style of cats eyes glasses from the 1950s shows how designers of the time were just as willing as their forebears and descendents to experiment and “push the envelope”, creating unique and fascinating glasses variants in the process.

Tura Cateye Glasses and the Use of Aluminum Frames

Beginning as the offshoot of a Madison Avenue fancy eyewear dispensary, Tura Inc. became one of the major American producers of high quality cateye glasses during the mid-20th century. The bold decision to make cast metal frames – particularly aluminum – on the part of the firm’s founder, Monroe Levoy, gave the eyewear a distinctive flair that helped set the glasses apart from competing brands and create brand loyalty among Tura aficionados.

The aluminum construction of many Tura cateye glasses made them very durable and tough, as well as providing a unique all-metallic look that did not have the harshness of steel. Those who have held a pair of Tura glasses today known that the glasses have a very solid feel despite their sophisticated lines, and are likely to far outlast plastic creations of the era.

cateye glasses    One of the ways in which the choice of aluminum as the construction material for the major lines of Tura glasses affected the embellishment of the glasses, too, opening up some new possibilities which could be duplicated in plastic now, but were beyond the plastics technology of the time.

Anodized colors on Tura cat eye eyeglasses

            Levoy’s choice to make many of his Tura eyeglasses out of aluminum opened up an unusual decorative option that enhanced the brand’s fashion appeal – the ability to color the glasses using anodized colors. Everything from faux tortoiseshell and wood to an array of shimmering, glistening metallic colors seldom seen on other cat eye eyeglasses at that time also made the products stand out.

Anodized metallic colors were complemented by metal appliques, sometimes made out of silver. These always appeared at the outer corners of the eyerims and flowed over onto the sturdily-hinged temples. A motif of curling vines and leaves seemed to be the signature applique for Tura.

Sturdiness in every part: lens mountings for Tura vintage cateye glasses

            The desire to make Tura glasses high quality (in contrast to some cheap American glasses of the time) also informed some other design decisions of Monroe B. Levoy or those working under him. For example, rather than lightweight screws to hold the eyerims closed around the lenses, tiny nuts and bolts with hexagonal nuts were used on some aluminum cat eye glasses from the Tura range.

Tura’s non-metallic cateye glasses – Lucite sunglasses

       cateye glasses     Tura did not focus solely on aluminum cat eye glasses, though these were a major slice of the firm’s business. The company also made Lucite sunglasses with the cats eye shape – vastly exaggerated in some cases. Some mid Fifties styles of vintage eyewear, for example, feature very wide eyerims decorated with stripes of laminated tinsel for a scintillating, fun effect that seems even now to evoke the bright sun of Caribbean beaches or the glitz and excitement of a party beneath the stars of a tropical resort.

Lucite is a polymer product that is considerably tougher than styrene type plastics and is very shock resistant, though it will burn poisonously at 460° F. It is also very lightweight, so although the extravagant eyerims created by Tura for these flashy vintage eye glasses cover a third of the wearer’s face, they remain light and comfortable to wear. Since Lucite is shatter-resistant, these glasses could be dropped with little risk of breakage.

Though Lucite is usually used for more robust purposes than cateye glasses – such as car headlamp lenses, armored windows in police cars, and bathyscaphe windows – Tura showed the willingness of mid 20th century manufacturers to make use of any available materials, and probably contributed to the fund of knowledge about Lucite manufacture and molding.

Tura Cat Eye Eyeglasses – the American Contribution

Though some American made vintage cat eye eyeglasses from the Fifties and Sixties had a reputation for very poor quality – such as those produced by Polaroid – Tura made a series of glasses that were the match of any foreign fashions from Austria, Germany, France, or England. Tura produced some of the sturdiest and highest quality metal cat eye eyeglasses of the era, many of which survive today with little more than slight signs of wear.

The company was born from an earlier Madison Avenue company named House of Levoy, which was founded prior to the Second World War by one Monroe Benjamin Levoy. One of the items sold by the House of Levoy was the “Futura Mirror”, and this was popular enough that an ellipsis of the word Futura – “Tura” – was used for the name of the newly launched brand in 1949.

cat eye eyeglasses      Artistry and innovation evidently runs in the Levoy blood, as one of Monroe’s descendents was to be the technician who developed pioneering computer animation techniques used for Hanna-Barbara cartoons such as the Flintstones and Scooby Doo. Back in the 1950s, however, Tura cat eye glasses made a name for themselves by harnessing die casting techniques to produce extremely rugged yet also very elegant vintage eyeglasses for the eager postwar market.

Aluminum had been used as a material in certain industries since the late 19th century, but it was the aircraft industry during the Second World War that led to massive advances in aluminum manufacturing science that made it cost effect for such uses as cat eye eyeglasses frames. Tura Inc. seized this opportunity with both hands and produced some of the most distinctive, hardy cat eye glasses that the Fifties and Sixties have to offer.

Advantages and drawbacks of Tura aluminum cat eye eyeglasses

            Tura was the first company to make all-aluminum frames for cat eye glasses, rather than just a few metal details, such as brows or decorative bands for temples. It could be argued that this boldness was a result of chance, but it could also be a sign of the innovative spirit that the American eyeglass industry often showed in the past, from Benjamin Franklin’s invention of the bifocal lens onwards.

Most Tura frames had a standard, elegant but not exaggerated, cat’s eye tilt to them, probably because of the casting process making it easier to create similar frames and then distinguish individual models through color and decorative details.

cat eye eyeglasses    Tura’s aluminum frames had several advantages, including light weight, beauty, and durability. Aluminum is basically corrosion proof, since it forms a microscopic but impervious layer of aluminum oxide on its surface within a few hours of exposure to air. This oxide layer is resistant to most environmental factors, and aluminum will never pit, rust, or corrode unless exposed to a handful of rare and powerful chemicals. Aluminum is also very resistant to breakage from normal use – more so than plastics – and retains its smooth sheen unblemished for decades.

The aluminum frames did present some problems, however – foremost among these being that the cat eye eyeglasses made from this metal can’t be easily adjusted. Despite this, Tura glasses were – and are – very popular among aficionados of the “feline” style of feminine glasses.

The aluminum design of Levoy’s Tura line opened up other possibilities for decoration that other fashion houses of the time were hard pressed to match, however, and introduced techniques that would expand the aesthetic range of glasses designs in the following decades.

The Teutonic Influence of Viennaline Retro Eyeglasses

The enterprising Englishman Michael Birch has plenty of highly effective competition to keep him on his toes – including the Viennaline brand originating in Austria. Wilhelm Anger, the founder of the brand, was every bit as colorful and hard-driving as Birch.

Anger was further aided by the design genius of a fellow named Udo Proksch, who was eventually imprisoned for life after destroying a ship and killing six people with a time bomb as part of an insurance fraud plan. Once again, the history of retro eyeglasses is shown to be anything but dull, thanks to the highly idiosyncratic personalities often involved either as creators or wearers of famous styles. Viennaline eyewear was also associated with the exciting cloak and dagger of the Cold War era.

retro eyeglasses  Viennaline was founded in the 1950s as a branch of Anger OHG, which had already been in existence for around a decade as a welding goggle company. The eventually murderous Proksch supplied many of the most striking vintage eyeglass designs, as well as possibly the name as well. At the time, Viennaline was as evocative and exciting as more exotic names are today. Vienna’s reputation was a heady cocktail of high culture – opera, music, ballet – and an exciting city near the Soviet Union, and thus a center for international spying and intrigue.

Today, Vienna seems like a quiet central European city with some pleasant architecture, but to the popular imagination of the Fifties, it was one of the world’s hotspots, a sophisticated and dangerous meeting place of East and West straight out of a James Bond film or novel – and this, as much as the quality of the vintage glasses themselves, was a powerful springboard to the commercial triumphs of the retro eyeglasses made by Viennaline.

Ballet and retro eyeglasses from Viennaline

            Anger and Proksch managed to transform their eyeglasses business from a stodgy industrial supplier into one of the most glamorous retro eyeglasses fashion houses in Europe in a single year with the introduction of two immensely popular designs – the Gigi and the Alt-Wien (Old Vienna). Appearing in advertising photos in front of dramatic pictures of performing ballerinas, these glasses were extremely popular worldwide, with the Gigi alone selling in excess of fifteen million.

The Gigi glasses were not cat’s eye in shape, but Viennaline helped to popularize cat eye glasses as far away as the United States with their mid-1950s cat eye creations. Initially, these glasses were fairly plain, with only a slight upward tilt at the outer corners and heavy brows of the same thickness across the whole width of the eyerim (though with a delicate bridge that prevented them from being a “unibrow” design).

Other designs, however, soon developed an elegant, pronounced “butterfly wing” shape that was technically cat eye glasses, but not as elongated as some American or British types. The brows of these glasses were slim at the inner end, and flared wider towards the outer end, producing a bold but feminine look that women of the time enjoyed wearing.

The experimental spirit and Viennaline retro eyeglasses

        retro eyeglasses    Like many companies in the Fifties and Sixties, Viennaline was involved with materials and technology experimentation which was to affect production everywhere once the techniques spread. Wilhelm Anger and his scientists pioneered use of Optyl, a plastic that was strong and rigid enough not to use metal supports, which was also up to a third lighter than Zyl frames.

Some of the Viennaline cat eye glasses also harked back to an earlier era with filigree silver or gold frames with delicate but richly Baroque decoration. Other than their modern plastic nose pads, these vintage glasses look like something from fin de siecle Vienna of the late 19th century, showing that eyeglass designs always stand a chance of being resurrected and modernized.

Retro Glasses from the Michael Birch Group

Retro Glasses from the Michael Birch Group

            Michael Birch and his consortium of companies continued to be a powerful force in the development of retro glasses during the 1960s. Cat eye glasses were still immensely popular during this period, so many of the glasses made during this time have that overall effect. There are also some retro glasses from Birch’s fertile imagination that were nothing like cat eyes, however.

Both style and manufacturing techniques of the time are strongly showcased in Birch’s creations. Few people recognize the term supra today, but it was one of the major forces of eyeglass design during two of the most extravagant and colorful decades in the history of vintage eyeglasses, and was often featured on the British firm’s most influential offerings.

Polyanna supra retro glasses

          retro cat eye glasses  One of the most exquisitely proportioned types of supra glasses that Michael Birch designed is the Polyanna, a type that appeared in 1964 to supersede the Mischief model. These retro glasses are splendidly balanced and symmetrical, making perfect use of geometry, opacity, transparency, and size to make a pair of glasses that would look extremely fashionable even among today’s creations.

A pair of tilting, transparent brows and connecting bridge were decorated with black laminate fittings that flared out at the end into a nearly crescent shape. Two abstract, open-ended loops of metal accented the ends of these laminate brow details. These elements alone were a tour de force of retro glasses embellishment at the time, using transparency, lamination, and metal to make a detailed yet unified appearance that was simultaneously bold and airy.

Birch also managed to size the “supra” lenses perfectly, using slightly flattened, elongated lenses that fitted the lines of the glasses exactly. Supra lenses sometimes had an unfortunate tendency to look like they were an afterthought hanging off the bottom of the brows, but the Polyanna managed to make these nearly rimless lenses look like an integral part of the glasses – an extremely important feature in eyewear intended to be three-quarters fashion piece, and only one-quarter practical glasses.

The Candi-Doll and full cat eye frames for retro glasses

       retro cat eye glasses     Birch’s Candi-Doll glasses are a good example of cat eye frames made with a full eyerim to hold the lens in place, rather than the supra arrangement. The frames were mostly transparent except for a pair of elegant upswept brows in “onyx colored” laminate or gold-toned aluminum, and small matching decorative bands on the temples. By using transparent Acrilite, the Candi-Doll retro glasses were meant to be nearly as invisible as supra models despite their full eyerims.

The experimental nature of glasses at the time is shown by the fact that the Candi-Doll was made out of non-flammable Acrilite. Though presumably any burst of flame hot enough to set a pair of glasses on fire would destroy the face wearing them regardless of whether or not the eyewear incinerated, this was listed as a selling point – and shows Birch’s ongoing fascination with new materials.

Life in the supra yet – the China Doll

            Though the Candi-Doll breaks with the supra pattern, the style had not yet been abandoned, as shown by one of Birch’s most highly successful models, the China Doll from the latter end of the 1960s. With a very slender upswept brow that flowed directly into the slim temples that continued its sinuous line to the ear, these retro glasses eliminated as much of the eyerims as possible.

The lenses were almost totally supported only by the thin wire in the groove at their edges – a technical achievement that made cat eye glasses almost as minimalistic as the rimless pince nez of an earlier era.

Notable Cat Eye Glasses Achievements of Birch & Green

Birch & Green, the British eyeglass company that was founded by the hot-tempered, creative Michael Birch in the early 1950s, started out relatively small but soon grew quite influential throughout the British Isles and the rest of the world.

Since many of the company’s most successful and famous eyeglasses were cat eye glasses, and since Michael Birch personally created the designs in a laborious design process, it can be said that the Englishman left his stamp on the whole cat eye glasses scene during the time when these saucy, chic glasses were the preferred eyewear for women everywhere beneath the light of Sol.

The Mirage Supra – semi-rimless cat eye glasses

            Birch’s most crucial design and finance triumph was the Mirage supra, a brand that came in both female and male versions and which was to continue in production in one form or another for the whole period of Birch’s ownership of the company. The Mirage was successful enough to allow the Englishman to buy out his partner and then his distributor, transmogrifying Birch & Green into first Michael H. Birch Designs and then Michael Birch Group.

cats eye glasses     Supra frames were a new approach to the age-old quest for rimless glasses that would make the eyewear inconspicuous, or at least fashionably reductionist. These frames consisted of little more than a brow section with temples attached. The lenses were held in place beneath the brows by a wire that looped around them, fitting snugly into a groove cut into their edges, thus allowing the lower curve of the frames to be eliminated totally. The lenses appeared to “float” under the brows.

The supra design was patented by one Neville Chappell, and Michael Birch used it under license, paying out five shillings to Chappell for each pair of glasses sold. The Mirage was well worth this investment, however, since it launched Birch’s true success in the world of vintage eyeglasses

The Mirage had strong cat eye elements, though its lenses were somewhat fuller and more oval than other models like the Polyanna. The brow portions, strongly upswept at the outer corners, gave the glasses a definitely feline look, which was more visible in the feminine than in the masculine form of the glasses. The bridge between the brows was transparent, leaving the highly decorated laminated brows as the main visible feature of the Mirage supra.

Around 60,000 pairs of Mirage cat eye glasses were made annually during the 1950s and 1960s, and given Birch’s fanatical insistence on high quality, large numbers have survived to be collected and worn today.

The Mischief supra – true cats eye glasses in supra form

  cats eye glasses          The end of the 1950s saw true cat’s eye glasses emerge in Birch’s product range, in the form of the Mischief supra. These supra glasses featured the usual arrangements – solid brows and bridge, with wires to support the lenses. The lenses, however, had an elongated, tilted shape, and the wires are positioned to accommodate them. The brows are upswept and wrought of dark red material fading to white at the bridge in almost painterly fashion. The temples were fairly plain other than color – the lenses and the brows were the selling points of these sleek, semi-rimless supra vintage eyewear.

Neville Cappell was still naturally profiting from these glasses, and it is perhaps because of this that Birch’s cat eye glasses started showing solid frames during the 1960s, though some extremely daring types of supras were still produced in this period, too.

Michael Birch and Cat Eye Glasses Frames in the 1950s

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.

cat eye glasses   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.

cat eye glasses           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.

Striking Prescription Cat Eye Glasses with Matching Temples

The uptilted eyerim style became so popular among women during the 1950s and 1960s that many prescription cat eye glasses were also made, besides the glamorous (and protective) sunglasses of this style, and those which were worn with clear lenses purely for fashionable or aesthetic reasons. Prescription cat eye glasses were sometimes relatively plain, but at other times they were just as chic and gracious as their purely stylistic kindred.

Cat eye glasses of all kinds, in addition to prescription cat eyeglasses, were often manufactured with decoration on the “brows” which extended to the temples as well, creating a wraparound display of the designer’s artistry to further decorate a fair and winsome face. These sculptural creations still have a fresh, airy, almost ethereal look in some of the best examples, despite the passage of half a century and the use of such seemingly unromantic materials as Zylonite.

pink cat eye glasses   Extending the decoration onto the temples created an aesthetic effect on prescription cat eye glasses (and non-prescription ones as well) that was visible from practically any angle except directly behind the wearer. Therefore, these vintage cat eye glasses convey a message of glamor and chic to nearly all observers.

Brows and bands – complementary features of prescription cat eye glasses

            Brows have already been described in a previous article, but what was not mentioned is that matching strips of decoration, known as “bands” are often attached to otherwise plain, smooth temples to dress them up further. These usually match the color, material, and patterns of the associated brows that appear on the same pair of eyeglasses.

Metal bands riveted into place with miniscule rivets, and sometimes decorated with enameled colors on some of the details (such as a flowers or leaves that appear in raised relief), are fitted to some temples. In other cases, bands of colored Zyl are laminated onto the temples to complement the Zyl laminate brows that appear on the piece. The band area can also be used for metal appliques that echo similar “findings” anchored to the front surfaces of the frames.

Sculptural temples to match elaborate eyerim sculpting

            The more elaborate pairs of prescription cat eye glasses  featured sculpted temples, which could be manufactured thanks primarily to the highly sophisticated plastic molding techniques developed during the mid twentieth century.

A similar effect might have been partly achievable in former centuries if a highly skilled artisan had made openwork temples out of finely drawn wire, but of course, eyeglasses were viewed with contempt at the time and no skilled artist would have wasted their efforts on embellishing what was considered an emblem of loathsome personal weakness.

The temples of these prescription cat eye glasses are sometimes given elaborate, fantastic shapes, and even made as openwork – whorls of slender plastic strands flowing around each other to form airy filigrees of transparent material that almost resemble

clear cat eyeglassesUnusually mounted temples on prescription cat eyeglasses

            In a few rare and extremely eye-catching instances, the demands of fashion trumped practicality, and temples were mounted at highly unusual angles on prescription cat eye glasses and others. These glasses were usually quite sculptural already, and to match up with the rest of the ensemble, the temples were mounted at the bottom of the eyerims on the outer side, rather than at the top.

An arched section then sprang upwards to pass above the ear and hold the glasses in place. Though slightly impractical, these bold designs are still refreshing and imaginative, and make a superb piece for a collector or wearer of vintage cat eye glasses with an eye for the individualistic.

Cats Eye Glasses Brows – Plastic Laminates, Appliques, and Rhinestones

            Metal brows were not the only possibility that designers explored while making vintage cats eye glasses during the 1950s and 1960s – indeed, there are so many different patterns, combinations of materials, colors, and textures, and other variants on the brow idea that it would likely take several volumes to list them all. However, several broad categories emerged in the cat eyes glasses market, all of which, naturally, led to further advances in manufacturing and material technology.

                               Plastic laminate brows on cats eye glasses

            An alternative to metal brows on cat eye eyewear was to layer a second piece of plastic onto the eyerims in the brow position – either two separate brows or a single unibrow strip extending from one side of the glasses to the other. Plastic laminates had several advantages to offset the fact that they are perhaps not quite as striking or high toned as the shimmering metal fittings on some glasses:

They can be made in any color or combination of colors without needing to be painted or enameled after production (though some do feature painting or enameling over part or all of their surface). For example, some cats eye glasses feature a standard reddish-brown tortoiseshell color for most of their Zylonite, but the plastic brows are made with a fine black and white marbled pattern reminiscent of exotic animal fur.

cats eye glassesThere is no need to include rivets to hold the plastic on – it can be directly fused to the eyerims, forming a permanent bond that ends only if the frames are snapped into pieces.

Plastic laminate is slightly lighter than metal laminate brows.

Metal appliques for cat eyes glasses

Metal appliques are small metal pieces added to cats eye glasses for decorative effect. They are similar to the metal “findings” used in costume jewelry, and are attached to the surface of the frames at strategic points. During the 1950s and 1960s, crescent moon shapes, stars, and other simple but eye-catching geometric shapes were used. These might be set among rhinestones, used to accent the outer end of a plastic laminate brow, or used in rows to produce a non-continuous suggestion of a brow.


            The glamor and fashion scene of the 20th and 21st centuries make such heavy use of rhinestones that, in design terms, this might be best described as the “Age of the Rhinestone”. Rhinestones originated in Germany, cut from rock crystals obtained in the Rhine River valley. Today, they are manufactured glass crystal for the most part, with a metallic backing that causes them to sparkle and scintillate, providing an imitation of the multicolored “fire” that diamonds exhibit in low light.

            Though first made in Germany at around the time of the American Revolution, rhinestones had become an essential part of the global fashion industry by the 1950s and 1960s, from America to the Soviet Union, from Japan to France to South America. It is no surprise, therefore, that they appear on many cat eyes glasses from the period.

          cats eye glasses  Rhinestones could be used as an accent – perhaps with large and small rhinestones arranged geometrically to create a more detailed effect – or as the sole decoration of a pair of glasses. There are even rhinestone brows where the whole of each brow is made of closely arranged rhinestones embedded in the eyerims’ Zylonite. A few cats eye rhinestone unibrows also exist with a single stripe of rhinestones extending above both lenses.

            More often, however, rhinestones are used in conjunction with other brow effects, adding both detail and a “finished” look, as well as some glitz and dazzle to an already chic pair of cats eye glasses.

Laminated Brows and Glitter – Two Ways of Decorating Cats Eye Glasses

Cats eye glasses were designed for one main purpose – to make a type of glasses that would look attractive when worn, besides being practical pieces of eyewear (or, with tinted lenses, serve as sunglasses – which, with their role of preventing damage to the eye from the searing glare of the summer sun, can be viewed as another type of practicality).

Though perhaps slightly politically incorrect by today’s standards, many advertisements of the time centered on how irresistible men would find a woman wearing these sophisticated glasses. Of course, it could also be argued that regardless of the twists and turns of political taboo, many people today choose glasses that they believe will make themselves more attractive to the opposite sex, even if the impulse is hidden under euphemisms like “looking your best” or “feeling confident”.

Be that as it may, designers and eyeglass companies were soon striving to make the most standout, glamorous, and eye-catching cats eye glasses possible for their eager, mostly female buyers. And, it must be said, many of these designs succeeded fully in their aim, producing some of the most unusual, seductive glasses in human history.

cats eye glassesGlitter in cats eye glasses

            The use of plastic as the main material for vintage frames, which began in the 1940s and came to mostly dominate the market during the 1950s and 1960s, opened up a new decorative opportunity which had been missing for most of history – the ability to embed objects inside the material itself. With the use of transparent tinted plastic, objects mixed into the plastic during molding would remain visible through the eyerims and add an extra decorative touch.

Since cats eye glasses were aiming for an electrifying effect, one of the best materials for this was glitter. There are many surviving examples of cat eye glasses with glitter embedded in transparent tinted frames, producing a sparkling, scintillating effect.

This decoration is pleasing to the eye, gives an intriguing “insect in amber” look, and was extremely cheap for the manufacturer, since glitter is no more than flakes of metallic colored plastic which costs practically nothing to produce. Since most of the decorative effect came from the glitter, many such glasses are otherwise quite “plain” cats eye glasses, though glitter could also be combined with spectacular sculptural effects for redoubled glamor.

Metal laminated brows on cats eye glasses

       cats eye glasses     A striking but still relatively conservative ornament for vintage cats eye glasses was the addition of metal laminated brows, a form of applique. In this case, a thin piece of metal is fitted to the upper part of Zylonite eyerims to provide a contrasting accent. The crisp, smooth, metallic arc of these brows contrasts coolly with the warmer, more organic look of the Zyl while remaining tastefully understated.

These brows may be made of aluminum (which gives an exceptional pale sheen when polished, and is, of course, rust-proof), steel, or alloys. Only luxury cats eye glasses would feature silver or gold brows. Metal laminated brows were usually attached with tiny rivets which were often disguised as part of the surface decoration. Raised flowers, leaves, floral shapes, or delicate geometric patterns are often found embossed into cat eye glasses’ brows.

Most brows were made in pairs, with a simple curved shape, or with the outer corners turning up in a flourish like those on a Renaissance Venetian carnival mask or the eyebrows of an elf from fantasy literature. Sometimes, however, a single “unibrow” was used, giving a somewhat less delicate but definitely noticeable look to vintage cats eye glasses.

Vintage Cat Eye Glasses with Brows

Vintage Cat eye glasses became increasingly popular as a feminine style in the 1950s and 1960s, in keeping with the new view of glasses as a glamorous and attractive fashion accessory. Now that needing vision correction had become acceptable in the mainstream (rather than a source of contempt and mockery), people threw themselves wholeheartedly into the purchase of eyewear that not only solved problems of nearsightedness, farsightedness, and astigmatism, but also enhanced their appearance.

Cat eye glasses impart a sophisticated, elegant, slightly exotic look to the wearer, simply through the use of frame shape. By this time, of course, lens technology was advanced enough so that the elongated shape of a cat eye lens could be made practical and functional as well as decorative. Most featured oval lenses in any cases with the extended portion of the eyerim on the outer edge being wider than the rest of the eyerim due to be drawn out into an upward and outward point.

vintage cat eye glasses     In a few cases, elongated lenses were made that extended up into the upswept outer point, but these glasses are fairly rare and most included oval lenses which made precision lens cutting and grinding much easier. The expanse of “extra” eyerim at the outer corners left an area open for decoration and led to the evolution of even more fascinating forms.

Decorations on Cat Eye Glasses

Vintage cat eye glasses did not remain plain for long. Soon the shape alone was not enough to seem exotic and individual enough. As most women adopted the cat eye glasses look, designers turned to richer decorations to set their creations apart, and enriched the history of American glasses at the same time.

With the rapid communications made possible by the modern era, the fashion houses of New York, Paris, and further afield were able to quickly influence each other with new flights of fancy and creativity. The popularity of the style ensured plenty of money flowed into the coffers of eyeglasses companies, giving them both the incentive to come up with new, intriguing designs and the resources necessary to make them a reality.

Decorations that appeared on vintage cat eye glasses took several different forms, which could be blended to create an even more infinite range of aesthetic possibilities:

Inset substances that provided a contrast – usually rhinestones for glitter and for an opulent “faux diamond” effect, but sometimes metal, glitter, or colored plastic as well.

Sculptural effects such as raised leaves, flowers, vines, fruit, grape clusters, and so on molded directly onto the flat surfaces of the eyerims.

Geometric additions to the eyerims, such as fancy bridges, scalloped edges, and even more fantastic applique or molded decorations made possible by modern materials technology. Some of the more intriguing effects were achieved by the addition of “brows” to cat eye glasses.vintage cat eye glasses

One of the most striking decorative innovations for cat eye glasses was the creation of “brows”. This phrase describes a range of different sculptural, applique, and decorative effects that appear on the top edges of vintage cat eye glasses’ eyerims. These decorative extensions appear here because of the limitations imposed by the need to make glasses that can be worn on the human face.

Extensions on the bottom of the eyerims would press on the nose and cheeks, lifting the lenses above comfortable eye height and causing discomfort to the wearer. Brows, however, allow the artistic ingenuity of the designers to run riot while still producing practical, comfortable glasses: the best of both worlds, the utilitarian and the ornamental.

Antique and Modern Matrix Glasses

One of the most famous films made in the past several decades which featured a form of pince nez are the Matrix movies, featuring a bizarre, almost Gnostic view of the world in which our perceived reality is a duplicitous computer-generated illusion, and the real world is a storm-wracked wasteland inhabited by murderous robots. One of the characters in this film, named Morpheus, sports a pair of mirrored sunglasses with a pince nez mounting – a type of pince nez which has entered the popular imagination as “Matrix glasses”.

Turning antique pince nez into Matrix glasses

            Since many pince nez are missing their lenses, or consist only of a bridge piece and associated mountings to set up a pair of rimless glasses, it is a simple matter to buy these and insert the lenses necessary to transform them into a pair that would not look out of place among the daring, deadly adventurers and heroes found in the film.

matrix glasses  The method of making Matrix glasses as close as possible to the variety shown in the film is to buy a set of pince nez bridges and plaquettes for rimless lenses (those in the film were rimless). Go to an optometrist’s shop or any other local business that will make custom-sized sunglasses lenses for you, and hire them to make you a pair of small oval sunglasses lenses.

Pince nez bridges designed for rimless use attach to the lenses using a screw that threads through holes at each end of the bridge. You will need a hole in each lens at the appropriate point to mount one end of the pince nez bridges to these elements. Since ordinary safety glass will usually disintegrate when drilled, you may need special glass as well. Be sure to have the holes placed correctly  for the specific mounting needs of the bridge piece you have acquired.

Remember that Matrix glasses must be mirrored in order to be authentic! Simple smoked glass is not enough – two dark, oval mirrors must be fitted to the vintage eyeglasses fittings to get the proper “Morpheus” look.

Alternate pince nez Matrix glasses

            You can opt to match the Morpheus look as much as possible, or you can use other, rimmed antique pince nez frames to make your Matrix glasses. If you choose this option, you can get the authentic Matrix glasses look by inserting the darkest mirrored sunglasses lenses you can find into your chosen vintage eyeglasses frames. However, the different frames that you use will give you an individual look – you will still be wearing Matrix glasses, but not copycat Matrix glasses.

matrix glasses    Oxfords transformed into Matrix glasses will give you the look of a scientist or perhaps a pilot (though not, more than likely, of an Earthly craft). Hoop bridge Matrix glasses are suited to an intellectual or aristocratic look, while astig variants are more casual.

Modern matrix glasses

            Though some modern producers of novelties make and market Matrix glasses, these are generally far inferior to the production values put into the original pince nez. Modern Matrix glasses are cheap costume pieces that do not look as good and will likely break within a few months, or a year or two at best. Making a pair of vintage pince nez into Matrix glasses will give you a high quality, rugged, tasteful set of glasses that will serve you faithfully for many years – after all, they have survived nearly a century in good condition already.

Oxford Glasses – the Evolved hoop spring pince nez

            Hoop spring pince nez, one of the most practical types of antique eyeglasses without temple from a contemporary viewpoint, eventually gave rise to Oxford glasses. These pince nez appeared in the later 19th century and continued in use until the wearing of this style of glasses gradually fell out of favor after the First World War. They keep many features of the hoop spring but add some of their own – and again, it is the way they grip the nose that is their most distinguishing trait.

Oxfords can be rimmed or rimless, and have two lenses, one with the expected loop for a safety ribbon. An arched “hoop” style bridge sits atop many of them, connecting the two eyerims or lenses. This is made out of flexible, springy metal, usually steel, whose curvature causes it to flex inward, pushing the eyerims together towards each other. There are also plaquettes, though these are mounted on the eyerims themselves and not the bridge – a critical distinction.

oxford pince nez glasses     Here is how to separate hoop spring pince nez from Oxford glasses:

Hoop spring pince nez have an arched, C-shaped bridge. This is mounted between the eyerims or lenses, and has a very short mounting stem projecting horizontally on each side (in most cases) to support the lenses. The plaquettes are long, and are hinged directly to the bridge – that is, they are attached to the tips of the inverted metal “C” and slant down and outward from it, conforming to the natural slope of the nose’s sides.

Oxford glasses are vintage eyeglasses with a more gently-arching, longer bridge that connects the tops of the eyerims or lenses like a rainbow over two hills. The plaquettes are totally separate from the bridge and stick out from the inner sides of the eyerims on a short stem.

Managing expectations of style and comfort with Oxford glasses

            Oxford glasses are usually chosen as a stylistic decision. There can be no doubt that, like all pince nez versions, they are highly idiosyncratic and instantly recognizable as an unusual type of antique eyeglasses. Oxfords are heavy and richly decorated, in contrast with the Spartan elegance of hoop spring pince nez, so which you opt for depends partly on your fashion ideas and what looks best with your face structure, clothing choices, and so on.

oxford pince nez glasses     Oxford glasses are fine collector’s glasses because of their tendency to be decorative and very striking in appearance. They are probably the archetypal pince nez in terms of the vintage eyeglasses likely to be depicted in films on the noses of keen British big game hunters, sinister First World War general officers, early 20th century intellectuals or doctors, and the like. They are, in short, the first image many people think of when they first hear the word “pince nez”.

Oxford glasses are somewhat behind their hoop spring, astig, and hard bridge kindred in terms of comfort, however. They are heavier and the plaquettes are not as well situated to provide a comfortable grip on the nose. Generally, they are best when worn for short periods and kept mainly for their considerable historical interest and even more notable aesthetics.


The Many Varieties of Pince Nez Sunglasses

Sunglasses seem to our modern perspective to be a completely contemporary phenomenon – it is difficult for most of us to imagine their use before the Second World War. Nevertheless, various kinds of non-optical, tinted lenses have been in use to protect against the glaring rays of the sun since the era of Shakespeare. Originally favored by the nobility (who could afford them), use of early sunglasses gradually spread through the rest of society during the succeeding centuries.

By the 19th century, pince nez sunglasses came into use at the same time as other pince nez varieties. Some of John Jacob Bausch’s earliest pince nez are glazed dark to produce a sunglasses effect. Though there are no known surviving pictures of people wearing these pince nez sunglasses, this is because the portrait painters of the era would not show a type of eyewear that conceals the subject’s eyes. Many accurately dated, indisputable pairs of pince nez sunglasses from the 1850s onward survive to this day.

pince nez sunglasses        Pince nez sunglasses combined the light weight and lean dimension of the pince nez style with the eye-shielding qualities of dark tinted glass. There were other innovations on the theme, however, and it is instructive to take a closer look at these. A pair of oddly tinted pince nez sunglasses may not be simply an early novelty, but an item created with a definite purpose in mind – even if later ophthalmic research has disproven the idea.

Many hues of pince nez sunglasses

            The most familiar pince nez sunglasses among our collections of vintage eyeglasses are those sporting smoked lenses. This eyewear features lenses that are tinted dark grey or black, and whose main purpose was exactly that of modern sunglasses – to reduce eyestrain and the effects of sun-glare on a bright summer day. The lenses usually are not corrective – that is, they are not meant for nearsighted or otherwise ailing eyes, but provide a transparent sunshade only.

If you find an unusual pair of yellow glazed pince nez sunglasses, these antique eyeglasses are not an old joke item or part of a masquerade costume despite their festive tint. Instead, it was believed that a yellow lenses helped the wearer see more clearly in foggy, misty, or smoky conditions. Hunters were avid purchasers of these pince nez, believing that they helped them spot game in the shimmering dawn mists, the evening fogs, or other less than ideal visual situations.

pince nez sunglasses   Blue lenses were, again, made for a special purpose – for those with sensitive eyes or conjunctivitis. This is probably due more to human psychological perceptions that blue is a soothing color than any actual medical benefit from the tint, but it still helped sensitive-eyed people (by lessening sun-glare, even if grey or black tinted lenses would have done as much) and provides the collector with another quirky item to add to their display.

Modern sunglasses lenses in vintage pince nez frames

            Fitting small modern sunglasses lenses into vintage eyeglass frames is a good way to acquire a set of stylish pince nez sunglasses. These will not block as many rays as goggle-like “bug eye” sunglasses, or wraparounds, but they will still cut down on the glare you experience and will look very dashing and romantic at the same time.

Hoop Spring Pince Nez Reading Glasses

Among the antique eyeglasses which lack temples and keep their place with their grip on the nose, hoop spring pince nez reading glasses are another comfortable, practical variety which often make the most of pince nez minimalism for both appearance and ergonomics’ sake.

The defining feature of these pince nez reading glasses (or other types of glasses) is that their seating on the nose depends on the tension of the bridge itself. This is key to their convenience and the pleasantness of their use. Indeed, everything about hoop spring vintage eyeglasses is defined by the bridge configuration itself, as well as the nose pads or plaquettes that the glasses feature.

pince nez reading glassesIronically, hoop spring pince nez “evolved” into the Oxford, which is even better looking to some but is heavier and considerably less comfortable to wear. Much of the reputation for discomfort that attaches to pince nez comes from tarring the whole family of eyeglasses with the Oxford’s foibles, while the hoop spring is  light and unobtrusive eyewear.

The hoop spring bridge itself

            The bridge of hoop spring pince nez reading glasses is always made of metal, typically steel, which has the proper tension and springiness needed to make the arrangement work. The lenses and eyerims are the standard types found on all 19th and early 20th century pince nez, either round or oval, with a loop or other fastening to accommodate a safety cord or ribbon on the lower curve of one lens or eyerim.

The curved metal of the hoop spring bridge provides all the tension needed to keep the glasses on your nose. It is fashioned to return to a rest state at a point where the two lenses are nearly touching, or even overlap slightly. Thus, when a nose is inserted between them, the inward pressure of flexible steel bridge, attempting to return to true, presses the eyerims or lenses against the nose hard enough to keep the eyewear in place.

From widened eyerims to plaquettes

            The very first pince nez reading glasses to appear in America, the hard rubber variety invented by John Jacob Bausch, were a type of early hoop spring. Thickenings of the inner edges of the eyerims provided some cushioning effect.

Later, crude cork nose pads were added to the eyerims, and later still, plaquettes were mounted on the bridge. The plaquettes, which are small plates hinged to adjust to the angles of the sides of your nose, are both more secure and more comfortable than the previous arrangements (widened eyerims or cork pads).

pince nez reading glasses A hoop spring bridge can be fitted to either rimmed or rimless pince nez reading glasses. Of course, for rimless attachment, thin, non-tempered glass is needed, since only this can be successfully drilled. Modern day safety glass is problematic because it cannot be drilled, and is thick and heavy as well, so special lenses are need for rimless pince nez reading glasses if they do not retain their original glass. There is no problem with rimmed varieties, of course.

Hoop spring pince nez reading glasses (sometimes called “C bridge pince nez”, since the “hooped” bridge resembles the letter C), are fun vintage eyewear to collect. They are pleasant to wear, lightweight, spare of design, and look great either on the face or in your display cabinet.