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.
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.
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.