Wearing and Preserving Antique Spectacles From Around the World

Michael Lebby
B.Eng (hons), MBA, PhD, C.Eng,


Wearing and preserving antique spectacles from around the World is discussed from the perspective of the wearer. The spectacles worn vary from late C18th to modern day. In order to observe the affects of a changing image the author (“the wearer”) has changed spectacles almost daily. These affects range from a simple misunderstanding of the mood the wearer is in to the generation of mutual respect of wearing an antique pair of spectacles that were originally manufactured 200years ago. It has been observed that by changing spectacles frequently, the perception of the wearer can be tailored to different environments, and this is shown via a number of exhibits of the wearer actually wearing the spectacles. Each exhibit has been described to convey the level of antiquity and preservation needed to maintain a collection of spectacles that always are in use i.e. that can be worn at any time

Author’s introduction

The fascination of both wearing and preserving antique spectacles arose because of an observation made at a high technology fiber optics company in California in 2001 [1] and discussions with two experts in the field [2, 3]. It was noticed by the author that when he went to work each morning, employees would try and figure out what mood he was in. The implicit question thought, but never asked was: what mood was the boss in? Was he in a good, bad, happy, stressed but don’t talk to me mood? On one particular morning, the author changed spectacles and realized very quickly that by simply changing spectacles, a different image of him could be created. This has the affect of confusing the folks trying to read his demeanor of the day. The author then, like most scientists, began to experiment with different pairs of spectacles. Initially four pairs were bought and each day of the week, spectacles were changed. The author noticed that it was reasonably easy to look intellectual when really you don’t want to be; to look sad when you are really happy; to look mean when you are really jovial. Eventually, the spectacle range was extended to include a wide range of spectacles that include antique as well as modern varieties. The unique image creation started a drive by the author to collect spectacles and only wear them. This presented a unique set of challenges. Wearing antique spectacles means finding, preserving, or restoring examples that can be brittle and fragile. It also means looking for examples that are in pristine condition. The results are detailed below in a number of exhibits, and show from simple photographs of the author that by simply changing spectacles, different perceptions can be generated.


Exploring the wearing of antique spectacles presented a number of challenges which included learning a new knowledge base of spectacles regarding the history, styles, shapes, designs and even how spectacles were worn. The benefit is figuring out why designs are what they are. For example, why were there high bridges in antique Chinese spectacles (shallow facial profiles), why noble metals were used instead of steel (they did not rust or corrode and they conveyed wealth), why tortoise shell or horn was used (they are soft and flexible for lens mounting) to name a few. The result is that even though this paper describes a number of interesting spectacles of varying age, this work is only a beginning. Whether spectacles are worn as a fashion accessory, or a way to convey wealth, or simply to correct poor eyesight, provides an interesting set of challenges to the wearer of a pair of antique or even retro-aged spectacles that are only 50years old.

Finding pairs of spectacles that don’t fit; fit but don’t match the face; fit and match the face but do not convey a satisfactory image to the observer is very intriguing. Gauging the potential image affect is challenging, as the spectacles may not have prescription lenses, and can only be used as sunglasses or, in some cases, can’t be changed at all and have to be worn as-is. In this paper three categories for wearing and preserving antique spectacles can be created: a) Wear as-is, b) Wear with minor modification, and c) Wear with modifications for every-day use.

a) Wearing as-is can be interpreted to be that the antique spectacles can be worn directly today without any change to frame, temple, lenses or anything else whatsoever. This necessitates the spectacles to be in excellent condition both from a lens, frame and hinge perspective.

b) Wearing with minor modification can be interpreted to be that the lenses could be exchanged to create sunglasses without prescription. Examples might be the design of near sight antique pince-nez spectacles where the original lenses are exchanged for modern synthetic tinted lenses. The pince-nez spectacles are then converted from reading spectacles into sunglasses.

c) Wearing with modifications for everyday use can be interpreted to be spectacles that are worn with modern day prescription lenses. A detailed evaluation is usually needed on the frame because the modern day prescription lenses may not be able to be fitted into the frame either due to the clamping of the lens or even the use of rivets as opposed to screws. Frames are not modified, so if the lenses are exchanged the originals are kept for future use or they are preserved.

Wearing as-is

In this section, various antique spectacles are discussed that can be worn directly in today’s environment. Exhibit A shows a pair of English antique spectacles worn by the author as sunglasses. These brass spectacles are dated around the early 19th century with folding temples and oval finials. The green tint allows the spectacles to be worn as sunglasses. The oval shape of the frame and wide bridge allows for comfortable wear.

Exhibit A
Exhibit B
Exhibit C
Exhibit D
Exhibit E
Exhibit F

Exhibit B shows a pair of early 20th century English tortoiseshell sunglasses with tinted glass lenses. The temples are straight and they wrap around the skull. The hinges are very simple and have a simple inter-locking mechanism. The style is reminiscent of the 1960’s with the large circular lens shape. Thus the wear-ability of these spectacles is quite high. Exhibit C displays another pair of early 20th century English antique sunglasses that are also tortoiseshell. In this pair the hinges are the traditional metal pin variety, although the temples are straight and have curves that follow the skull shape. The glass lenses are tinted in the 10% range, which allow for comfortable wear both in the work environment and also for recreational activity. The tortoiseshell is more rigid than in Exhibit B, and therefore has a higher fragility factor. Even if the wearer wanted to exchange the lenses, the level of fragility of the tortoise would make the process extremely high risk. In this particular exhibit, the spectacles will remain in their original condition. Exhibit D shows a pair of English mid 19th century tinted Double D’s that are based on a steel frame with folding (double-hinge) temples. The dark green tint allows for a wear as-is both with the D lenses open or with them closed. Although the original use for Double D’s were to protect the eyes from cinders and environmental elements from combustible materials, that same use can be applied today when the D lenses are opened to protect the eyes from light access in the horizontal plane. These antique spectacles provide both a unique image and also protection for activities such as skiing and hiking. Similarly for the spectacles in Exhibit E which are in pristine condition and are relatively uncommon. This pair of English silver and tortoiseshell Double D’s have green tinted lenses with silver folding temples. The tortoiseshell frame is not cracked or chipped and provides for a special effect when worn today. The spectacles are worn as sunglasses typically with the D lenses closed. Exhibit F shows a pair of gunmetal steel Double D’s with black tinted lenses. This exhibit is English and can be dated to the mid 19th century. The hinges are extremely tight which allows the spectacles to be worn with the D’s in the open position. The dark lenses also create a wrap-around effect, and are very practical in bright sunlight situations. A very fine example of Continental antique Double D’s is shown in Exhibit G. This particular pair of spectacles has silver frames with silver folding temples. The frames are dated in the mid 19th century. The light blue lenses allow for use in low light conditions, which makes their wear-ability factor high. The most interesting feature of these spectacles is the detail of silverwork on the side of the main frame adjacent to the hinges and also over the bridge. Closer inspection reveals that the frames have been shaped downwards around the nose. It is not clear whether this is intentional in the design, but nonetheless, the spectacles are extremely comfortable for the wearer. Exhibit H is a combination of pince-nez and spectacles

Exhibit G
Exhibit H
Exhibit I
Exhibit J
Exhibit K
Exhibit L

 with ear wrap temples. The spectacles are English and dated around the turn of the 20th century. The frames are silver-plated and the pince-nez is operated via horizontal springs that clamp the nose. The optional temples allow for use throughout the day in a number of situations that would be problematic for pince-nez wearers. Side flaps are opaque and successfully protect the eyes from strong sunlight. The image created by these spectacles is dramatic as the shape of the frame is relatively modern. Similar shaped designs can be found in modern day environments ranging from movies to recreation activities. A more classical version of pince-nez is shown in Exhibit I tinted dark olive green to filter sunlight. These are dated from around the late 19th century and due to the heavy thick glass they are difficult to wear for extended periods. In addition, a strong bridge is necessary with this particular example, although custom fitting of the bridge may alleviate the weight issue to a degree. Exhibits J, K and L show examples of antique Chinese spectacles that are designed for facial profiles that are less pronounced. In all these designs, the size of the lens is large so that the spectacles actually rest on the facial cheeks rather than the nose bridge. In the exhibits, these spectacles can be worn for the most part by resting the frames on both the cheekbone as well as the nose bridge. Exhibit J is an example of a late 19th century brass and green lens with double hinge temples. The bridge is ornate and depicts a dragon like feature. The spectacles can be worn easily for bright light conditions. With Exhibit K dated also in the late 19th century, the spectacles can also be worn in bright light conditions, but given the age of the tortoiseshell rims, these are much more fragile and brittle. The bridge is also hand carved and very elaborate. This level of detail in a bridge is typically not seen today in modern spectacles. With loose folding temples and hand carved temple pads or finials, the spectacles are not in pristine condition and can’t be used for wearing purposes. Exhibit L is similar to Exhibit J with over-sized lenses that can be thought of as being fashionable in today’s age. Again, an ornate brass bridge gives these spectacles a level of wear-ability if pairs can be found that have their temples in pristine condition.

Exhibit M
Exhibit N
Exhibit O
Exhibit P
Exhibit Q
Exhibit R

Wearing with minor modification

This section details the wearing of spectacles that must have small modifications made to them. Typically, this would be adding tinted lenses to antique spectacles into modern day sunglasses. It should be noted, that in every case, the original lenses, cases, wrappers, and components are kept (preserved and respected) for future use in case the spectacles need to be returned to their original state. Exhibit M is a dramatic change from standard pince-nez where the clear glass-reading lens has been replaced by a new plastic CR39 lens with a mirrored green AR coating. This pair of late 19th century pince-nez has a gold plated chain that hooks around the ear. In wearing these pince-nez, the fit to the nose bridge is so good that the chain is not needed at all, except to maintain a high confidence that if the spectacles slipped they would not reach the ground. The image in Exhibit M is a composite of 2 photographs, one being of the author, which is in monochrome, and the second being the pince-nez, which is in color. The effect of the composition promotes attention to the pince-nez. Exhibit N is another example of creating a pair of sunglasses from an original steel pair of folding temple spectacles dated around the late 18th century. In this exhibit, modern metalectric mirror plastic lenses replace the original lenses. These lenses have an extreme green AR coating and when viewed from different angles actually look either teal or purple. The spectacles are very comfortable for the wearer as sunglasses. Exhibit O shows a coin silver late 18th century pair of spectacles in the reading position. Like Exhibit N, the frames are screw clamped and allow for easy access to the lenses. With folding temples and strong hinges, the spectacles are ideal to convert to sunglasses as shown in Exhibit P. The conversion is made by replacing the original lenses with CR39 plastic lenses with a 45% purple tint. This Exhibit worn as sunglasses promotes a definite ‘attitude’ image for the wearer. Exhibits Q and R are mid 19th century examples of quartz-based Chinese tinted sunglasses. Both pairs of spectacles are heavy to wear, although Exhibit R is easier due to the lighter weight of the quartz. Both spectacles are worn on the cheekbone and have the traditional high bridge with interesting brass lens clamps using rivets. Each has folding temples with tiny brass circular finials. Unfortunately, both Exhibits have very weak temples, especially the folding hinges in the middle of the temple, which makes them difficult to use in everyday wear. Exhibit S is a view of a pair of early 20th century brass and tortoise Chinese spectacles with tinted lenses. The lenses are not prescription and although the bridge is heavy, the size of the lens allows for reasonable comfort in wearing them. The brass temples add style to these spectacles with engraved detail along both the temples as well as including the finials.

Exhibit S
Exhibit U
Exhibit V
Exhibit W
Exhibit X

Modifying for every-day use

In this section, a number of different pairs of spectacles are reviewed that can be worn in an everyday use scenario with modification. The pairs reviewed date from the late 19th century to modern day designs. In every case, the shape, style, material and design of the spectacles create unique images for the wearer when prescription lenses are added. A number of the examples utilize dielectric coatings to create interesting solutions. Exhibit U are an example of early 20th century Dutch antique silver engraved spectacles that have been modified to accept 10% purple tinted lenses with a mirrored AR flash coating. The 10% purple tint can be worn easily in the office lighting environment, while the flash coating provides a modern day affect to a conventional early 20th century design. Similarly Exhibit V shows American Optical 'Ful-vue' spectacles with a Zeiss Gold AR coating on a prescription lens. With gold cable temples, the spectacles are very comfortable for everyday use. Flash AR coatings add a unique style to many antique spectacles, although the requirement is not necessary for a number of spectacles as can be seen in Exhibit W. In this example, an early 20th century pair of Dutch celluloid circular frames with cable temples, standard AR coatings and a silver plated bridge have conventional prescription lenses. For most casual wearers, the spectacles convey an image of wizardry, given the recent interest in the subject. Also, in the theme of antique Dutch spectacles, Exhibit X shows a similar prescription lens strategy where flash coatings are not used. This pair of late 19th century solid gold spectacles with gold spring temples has good frame width, which allows them to be used in an everyday environment.

Exhibit Y
Exhibit Z
Exhibit AA
Exhibit BB
Exhibit CC
Exhibit DD

1950s and 1960s Retro-style

It is sometimes hard to believe that spectacles designed and manufactured in the 1950s period are now over 50years old, and well on their way to becoming antiques. The 1950s and 1960s was a very interesting era for fashion and especially spectacles wearers since the industry began to experiment considerably with materials, color and style. A number of examples are detailed that when viewed side-by-side clearly show a wide variety of images for the wearer. Exhibit Y shows a classic aluminum Victory Optical pair manufactured in the 1950s that have a soft light b (pink) tint with Zeiss blue AR coating onto 1.67 refractive index prescription lenses. Exhibit Z utilizes the same Zeiss blue AR coating on similar prescription lenses in a pair of black zyl, gold filled chassis Shuron spectacles. By simply changing the AR coating to a Zeiss gold, Exhibit AA shows a pair of Austrian Vienna line 1960s zyl and gold chassis spectacles that can be used for every-day wear. Following the European retro-theme, Exhibit BB is a pair of Spanish 1950s Indo spectacles that have a 25% orange tint and a Zeiss gold AR coating. These spectacles have a winged bird feature on the frame front to add to the retro-image. Although, wearing antique Chinese spectacles is a challenge due to weight, this can also be the case with 1960s styles as shown in Exhibit CC. In this pair of unmarked black zyl spectacles, a basic prescription lens is added so that a classic 1960s image is created. A challenge for these spectacles is the strain on the temple hinges, which tend to weaken and become loose with reasonable levels of wear. A better example of temple hinge design can be found in American Optical’s red dot screw hinges. In Exhibit DD, a dark brown zyl frame with Zeiss gold AR lenses is shown that are lighter than Exhibit CC, and are very comfortable to wear. Moving towards lighter 1960s zyl frames, Exhibit EE, shows a pair of popular ‘Everyman’ Bausch and Lomb demi-amber zyl spectacles with a Zeiss blue AR prescription lens that are also very comfortable. The last Exhibit in the retro-group is another very popular design in the 1960s, the Artcraft ‘Trimline’ with keyhole bridge and aluminum temples colored brown. With a zeiss gold AR coated prescription lens, these spectacles are also comfortable in addition to being fashionable.

Exhibit EE
Exhibit FF
Exhibit GG
Exhibit HH


Wearing modern spectacles does achieve the aims of this document in examining image creation, because each pair of spectacles conveys a different perspective of the wearer. In this section, the focus is on French modern spectacles that are hand-built by Alain Mikli and his team in France. Most modern spectacles utilize automated manufacturing and plastic injection molding processes to bring frame pricing to very competitive levels. Unfortunately, these frames loose something in the style that is present in the original zyl designs in the 1950s and 1960s: a custom feel about them. As we have seen in various examples, the custom feel might be the frame shape, temple design, motifs on the frame, images and weight to name a few. With the Alain Mikli frames, a combination of steel and custom colored acetate is hand-worked to create a series of unique material colors in the spectacle frame and temples [4]. Exhibits GG and HH show a number of different designs that can convey simple image messages; For example, Exhibit GG could be conveying a ‘split personality’ or just simply ‘fun’, and Exhibit HH ‘Brown or Blue clothes today’. A few more of these are shown in Exhibit II, where nine different Mikli frames are collaged to show the variance of an image creation using modern spectacles. In this Exhibit, the images could be conveying ‘Who shall I be today?’ meaning that the wearer can choose how the image should be created. Interestingly, this image can be enhanced by wearing different frames either on a daily or bi-daily basis. The age of the spectacles can be varied as well as shown by the collage in Exhibit JJ. In this exhibit there are three modern and one pair of antique spectacles. The fun begins when they are all worn in a single day (clockwise from the top-left): English antique pince-nez for the afternoon drive, Modern French Alain Mikli for the office meeting in morning, Modern German IC Berlin for the afternoon meeting outside the office and lastly, Modern Austrian Reiz Augenspeil for dinner in the evening. Lastly, in Exhibit KK, the author is shown creating a number of different images using a wide spectrum of spectacles.

Exhibit II
(Who shall I be today?)
Exhibit JJ
(Who should I be during the day?)


In concluding this work, the biggest and most difficult challenge has been finding antique spectacles in pristine condition. Typically hinges are often weak and broken, and on many pairs of spectacles, the lenses cannot be removed at all. Sometimes the screws are rusted or corroded or even cross-threaded, and in many cases screws are not used at all, and rivets are in place. Clearly, noble metals are easier to work with, but sometimes the softness of the metal does accelerate wear and tear on the hinges. As a rule, lenses are not removed if the screws are in poor condition or the original lenses are riveted. In other materials such as tortoise and/or horn, the older the material is, the more brittle and fragile it becomes. A good example of this would be Martin’s Margins where the inner annulus is often cracked, chipped and/or broken. The summary would be to apply extreme attention to detail when working with antique spectacles.

Exhibit KK

 The golden rules are to preserving and wearing antique spectacles might then become:
a) Keep the cases and lenses for future use
b) Never throw anything away (wrapper, details, prescription papers, etc)
c) Try and find replacement parts if possible as many are often broken
d) Locate craftsman who are knowledgeable in the trade of antique spectacles, and can maintain the integrity of the spectacles, lenses and piece parts.


Wearing antiques spectacles can be fun, however, the spectacles represent a unique set of challenges that require a special level of tender loving care. Choosing the right pair of antique spectacles to wear means closely checking hinges, temples and frame condition in addition to style and image creation. Once suitable pairs of spectacles have been found, a unique image can be created that offers a high level of respect in the community.

BASIC KEY ADVICE: Preserve the lenses, and respect the frames. Use penetrating oil to soften the joint if necessary prior to removing the old lenses. If you are at all uncertain, don’t try to wear that particular pair. Just keep them in your collection as is.

The Author

Michael Lebby is a collector of spectacles who wears his collection as part of everyday life. He continually is looking to find pristine examples of antique, old, retro and modern spectacles that offer new and exciting images and perceptions. He is a member of OAICC UK) and OHS (USA). He practices as an internationally renowned fiber optics and optoelectronics engineer/scientist. He has written and published extensively in the fiber optics field and has over 200 issued patents in the field of optics. Currently he spends much of his time lecturing all over the world as Executive Director of the Optoelectronics Industry Development Association.


[1] Ignis Optics, Inc (which was acquired by Bookham Technology PLC late 2003), designs and manufactures very high speed fiber optic modems which are used in Central Office switches and network routers that are typically run by telephone companies and internet providers. This segment of the optics industry is based on sub-micron (thousandths of a centimeter) alignment of semiconductor lasers to fiber optic cable. When data is sent from a computer, the chances are that somewhere in the network, the data will pass through a light emitting laser diode that has to be aligned to a fiber accurately so that data can pass without interruption.
[2] Private discussions with Fletcher Wallis, London dealer of antique spectacles and scientific instruments
[3] Private discussions with Debbie Shearer, Pennsylvania, Dispensing Optician, ABO
[4] Private discussions with Alain Mikli, Spectacle Designer, Paris, France

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