Even at the height of popularity for cat eye glasses and other glamor eyewear, the need for practical eyeglasses was never far away. In previous centuries, eyeglasses were used only to correct vision, but in the twentieth century, spectacles took on many additional roles. This was partly due to the plethora of new materials and manufacturing techniques that the modern age brought onto the scene. Many kinds of vintage glasses simply could not have been made before plastics, for instance.
Modern life and the explosive growth in different human activities also called out human ingenuity in making eyeglasses of diverse sorts. For instance, welders need protective eyewear that can shield their retinas from the intense glare of a welding arc. Early aviators and drivers, their faces exposed to air and debris moving at speeds humans had never encountered before, needed a way to protect these sensitive, prized organs from injury.
Technological advance and the freedom from continuous labor also brought about new sports on a large scale, such as skiing. Vuarnet was an eyeglass company that was started by Jean Vuarnet, a famous French skier, in collaboration with two eyeglass executives. This firm was founded in 1960, in the midst of the cat eye glasses era. Its decades of success shows that more “serious” vintage eyeglasses were also a vibrant market at the time, since it catered to sporting enthusiasts rather than fashion plates.
Using mid 20th century materials technology for rugged vintage eyewear
Vuarnet glasses were made to be used in rugged conditions – on the frigid, windswept slopes of mountains, on board sailing boats, and other demanding areas. As such, their main focus was on providing reliable eye protection from glare and windblown particles, not looking good. This does not mean that Vuarnet glasses lack a certain stark beauty, but they are far less flamboyant than many contemporary glasses.
The use of tinted lenses for different situations reaches back in eyeglass history well into the 19th century. From yellow tinted lenses used by hunters and soldiers for better visibility on cloudy days, to the dark blue lenses poets wore to simulate night and gain inspiration even at noon, the early tinted lenses were a varied and interesting lot.
Vuarnet lenses were much more scientifically grounded, but were, ultimately, based on much the same principle. Different tints of lenses were offered for ordinary snow conditions, alpine areas, sailing, and general outdoors use.
The frames were usually made out of nylon, so that they would bend and not break if dropped or thrown from the owner’s face by an impact. This ensured that skiers and boaters would still have eye protection after an accident, and also ensured that fragments of broken frame would not be driven into their faces if they had the misfortune to land on a surface face-first. Use of modern materials like nylon for frames set Vuarnet’s vintage eyeglasses apart from ordinary cat eye glasses, which would have shattered under the abuse Vuarnet sunglasses could shrug off.
The strengths and weaknesses of “form before function”
Practicality was the strength of Vuarnet vintage glasses, yet also paradoxically their weakness. In an age full of brilliant cat eye glasses and other extremely stylish designs, the glasses looked drab. The fact that they were sold only at ski resorts also limited their spread, though they were immensely popular in their own niche.
The history of the Vuarnet brand shows that function alone isn’t enough to guarantee success. The brand eventually flagged, and has only revived in recent years both because of a makeover and an aggressive advertising campaign to give it a rugged yet suave masculine image.