The choicest vintage eye glasses available to an affluent inhabitant of the British Colonies in North America in the time leading up to the American Revolution (17th through early 18th centuries) were silver and gold framed imports from the “home country” (that is, England). At that point, American craftsmen lacked the confidence and the technical skill to make these precious metal glasses. Due to the less affluent society then existing in America, there also was not enough of a market to sustain a whole industry of silversmiths specializing in fancy vintage eye glasses.
Silver and gold vintage eye glasses have not fared as well as those made out of bronze, steel, or brass-bronze alloys, for the simple reason that most of them were melted down for their precious metal content after the owner died (or when still alive if the wearer needed quick cash). They are rare and valuable collector’s items today, and are mostly stowed away in museum cases and vaults.
Monograms and hallmarks on early silver vintage eye glasses
Monograms and hallmarks are markings which appear on the flat surfaces of temples on high quality, expensive silver vintage eye glasses in the pre-Revolutionary period. Use of these markings continued among English silversmiths long after this period ended – well into the 19th century, in fact – but examining the markings can help to establish whether or not a pair of vintage eye glasses belongs to this period.
Plain metal vintage eye glasses, such as those made of steel, were only marked with their optical power in inches. Silver spectacles were luxury items and therefore engraved with the individual markings of the makers. Americans eventually started making silver frames as well, and used their own emblems, but this was quite a bit later than the pre-Revolutionary era. An American hallmark or monogram makes it highly probable that the spectacles thus marked are from a later time.
Monograms are initials of the silversmith or the silversmithing company in England which fashioned a particular pair of vintage eye glasses. These are often rendered in fancy lettering, with scrollwork, embellished script, and other elegant flourishes which makes the emblems quite attractive in their own right. The large number of silversmiths active at the time means that they cannot all be listed here, but researching a specific monogram may let you pin down exactly when an item was made.
Hallmarks are markings engraved to show that taxes on the silver goods had been paid. Finally, if there is a man’s head on the temple, then this is King George I if facing left, meaning that the vintage eye glasses are from the late pre-Revolutionary period. King George II faces right, and though he is still technically pre-Revolutionary, he reigned very late in the period, so the spectacles that bear his image are nearly from Revolutionary times.
Tarnishing on silver vintage eye glasses
Tarnishing – or oxidation of the silver – is not a defect on vintage eye glasses from the 17th or late 18th century Colonies. In fact, it is a benefit, because it shows that the pure silver content is high without needing to slice a piece off a valuable antique for analysis. Do not clean tarnishing off a pair of silver vintage eye glasses, since this is equivalent to vandalism from a collecting point of view.