Whether eyewear fashion designers keep rolling out newer and trendier eyeglasses or replicate iconic ones by famous designers, old eyeglasses will always be a treasure to antiquarians and vintage wear enthusiasts. These folks have one goal in common, which is to stay linked to the original and authentic eyeglasses designs from more than a hundred years ago.
If you are thinking about adding to your personal collection of old eyeglasses or looking to own your first pair, you’re in the right place. Or maybe you’ve come across some glasses and suspect they might be valuable but aren’t sure? We’ve got you!
The History of Antique Eyeglasses
For anything to fit the antique label, it has to have been made 100+ years ago and antique eyeglasses are no exception. Of course eyeglass technology was booming before 1922 and has been existing for centuries. Why? Humans have been plagued with congenital or age-related vision problems that needed to be rectified for ages. Vintage eyeglasses on the other hand are considered to be eyeglasses made between 1923 and 2002.
Eyeglass production in earnest is said to have first happened in the 14th and 15th centuries. The first record of eyeglasses mass production was by Italian guild members and long before Germany followed suit and became a popular lead producer as well. Prior to this, eyeglasses existed but were meant for eyesight refinement and weren’t sold commercially. The 17th century saw the creation of eyeglasses with Italian lenses and German frames when Italian and German manufacturers teamed up to make the best eyeglasses for that period.
The world has long evolved from handheld eyeglasses to two armed spectacles and nobody seems to be getting weary of these adornments- not individual collectors or historians and certainly not contemporary fashion connoisseurs.
Watch the evolution of eyeglasses.
Types of Antique Eyeglasses
Considering eyeglasses have been around for ages, there are all sorts of antique eyeglasses. The type of antique eyeglasses you come across is dependent on the period they were made. While those made before the 16th century are particularly hard to find – most early eyeglasses were pretty fragile and very few popular ones have survived – you will be elated to find one that is in good condition.
Those are extremely rare and worth your while and some of these rare antique eyewear types include:
This early type has two circular lenses connected by a rivet that’s open to allow the glasses to sit on top of the nose. They were a simple form of eyeglasses made of leather or wood and were later on referred to as Pince-nez Spectacles.
Thread Loop (Threaded) Spectacles
Thread loop spectacles were first Spanish and then Asian. These eyeglasses had loops of ribbon or cords holding them onto the face. Sometimes threaded spectacles were weighted to ensure they stayed in place.
Tinted eyewear was especially popular in the 17th century. These small colored lenses were loved for their unique colored lens that offered eye protection from nasty light.
Split-Bridge spectacles are rare antique spectacles with a slit in the middle of the eyeglasses bridge piece. This was meant to allow for more flexibility in the bridge of the nose area.
Nuremberg Style Spectacles
These armless eyeglasses named after Nuremberg, Germany were mostly from the 16th and 17th centuries and came with round lenses and a u-shaped bridge.
Temple spectacles are eyeglasses from the 17th century. These eyewear were the first to have glass arms which saw the glasses tightly attached to the head. Temple spectacles had two arms like the ones on modern eyeglasses on top of a wire frame and oval lenses.
Double-Hinged Temple Spectacles
Double-hinged temple spectacles first made their appearance in the mid 1700s. They came as four-armed eyewear that ensured the glasses were secure around the head. These spectacles are similar to Temple spectacles but differ in that they have four arms. Despite the extra security, these eyeglasses didn’t stick around for a long time.
18th Century Bifocals
These spectacles are known for being Benjamin Franklin accessories since the former American president wore them and like their name says, they came on in the 18th century.
Pin-in-slot eyeglasses may not be as common but they do have a similar attachment mechanism. Though made in the 19th century, their arms are attached to the lenses in the same way that glasses from the 21st century are.
Four Lens Spectacles
These spectacles were first made during the late 17th century. The very first archetype of four lens eyeglasses had two lenses on hinges on top of the actual lenses. The former ones would be flipped down when the person required to use a stronger prescription. The second archetype however, differed in their allowing the lenses to rotate sideways instead of flipping them down.
Different types of antique and vintage eyewear.
Identifying Antique Eyeglasses
Part of collecting rare and valuable antique eyewear is being able to identify authentic old eyeglasses. It is thus important to know what to look out for when identifying antique eyeglasses and here are some of the ways to identify antique eyewear.
Make Use of Online Resources and Reference Materials
The internet came to everyone’s rescue on so many fronts but its researchers who must use and enjoy it the most. Good thing a researcher can be anyone, including a collector looking to get themselves all of the information they need on antique eyewear. There are credible websites like this one and many more that one can turn to.
Reference books and papers from respected and published authors will also come through on everything antique eyeglasses. Hard copy publications are especially considered more trustworthy than online resources but each has its own pros and cons. In the end, knowledge is power or everything, they said so you first have it then learn to filter what is factual from what isn’t.
Both online and physical resource materials, say from your local library, will have a list of different makers from the different eras, materials used, various styles to be on the lookout for, or any feature that makes them stick out.
Check For Markings
Any genuine antique item will feature specific marks that are unique to it and antique eyeglasses are no special case. Antique eyeglasses have a mark that ties it back to the manufacturer or production era. These may be the manufacturer’s name, a mark, temple length, country of origin or material used such as gold content for the wireframes.
Sometimes an antique eyeglass will need to be cleaned so one may be able to closely check for markings and not miss them. While we will cover how to clean them later on, using a magnifying glass and torch to see if there are any markings is best on clean and polished antique eyeglasses. Be it on the temple pieces, inside the glass frames or on the handle, it’s easier to see any marking on a clean surface.
Style And Material
Let’s say you have cleaned your antique eyeglasses and checked keenly for marks but couldn’t find any. Does that mean that’s the end of identifying your antique eyewear? Absolutely not! One can easily tell apart old eyeglasses from their style and material used to make them.
Check to see if the frame style is round, oval, square or cat eye. Are the frames of the antique eyeglasses made of leather, precious metal like those with gold content, tortoise shell or wiresteel? They could be made using the famous early to mid 20th century material like bakelite, celluloid or early plastic. What’s unique about the old eyeglasses, is it that they have handles or loops or something entirely unique to them?
Look at all of these features and cross reference them to the online resources and reference material they have. If after doing this you are still not sure if the glasses are authentic antique pieces, the remaining and best option is to contact an expert, it could be an antique dealer or historian who has the knowledge and skills for identification and appraisals.
Does Age Matter?
So does age really matter when it comes to antique items? While value isn’t necessarily directly related with age, the popularity of antique eyeglasses tramps the age factor. Antique eyeglasses are especially popular for their effectiveness.
That’s why eyeglasses from over a hundred years ago will cost less than those aged 50. Like we will see in factors that influence antique eyeglasses’ price, age may or may not be a factor. Mostly, it’s dependent on what a specific collector is looking for.
Dating Antique Eyewear
When you have something whose age you can’t quite tell in your collection, it can be a daunting thing especially if you can’t ignore the burning desire inside you to figure it out.
Getting on this quest is just as exciting as you might get to learn their history and value as well as determine their authenticity.
Marks On Glass Frame Temples and Rims
Starting in the 1800s, eyeglass manufacturers put the information of the glasses onto the frames’ rims and temples. While they made quite small marks that will require a microscope to read, this information will tell one the maker’s name, materials from which the glasses were made and its temple measurements. The maker’s mark helps you narrow down its production date to the period in which the company existed.
The more gold framed a pair of eyeglasses is, the more value it will have despite its age so don’t use that as a dating mark even though you may well find the content mark on the frame.
It isn’t always that marks are legible seeing they can get rubbed off or miss some information and that’s where a feature like style comes in. When dating your antique eyeglasses, consider its style. Despite the fact that the different styles keep coming back and there are reproductions, most sliding and straight temple glasses were produced beginning from the 1800s.
Pince nez between the 1890s and 1920s, Rimless glasses from the 1900, Horn rim glasses came into style from 1920, cat eye glasses beginning the 1940s and browline glasses from the 1950s going forward.
The plastic for glasses craze among eyewear manufacturers became a thing in the 1930s though only stingily. The only downside of the plastic glasses that were made between the 30s and 40s is that they were pretty brittle and very few of them have seen the dawn of today because of this very reason. If you find a plastic rim, that was from the 1950s onwards.
Lens made in the 1800s are generally small and will sit within the eye socket while those made after the 1900s are larger and tend to sit further from the face. Yes, that’s how you can easily approximate the age of your eyeglasses simply by looking and wearing them.
Straight or sliding temples with no curvature on them are no doubt from anywhere between 1800 and 1890. Those that have an extreme curve wrapping around the ear are called cable or riding bow temples and were produced between 1880 and 1940. Skull temples with a slight curve are said to have been popular from the 1930s onwards.
Lenses made before the 1900s will often be oval or rectangular shaped. Egg or ovoid and hexagon shaped lens came on in the 1900s while the 19th century saw the cat eye shape become popular.
These didn’t come until the 1920s so any metal rimmed glasses with nose pads were made after 1920.
Extra Dating Tip!
There is no end to the number of reproduced eyeglasses you will come across out there so you want to deal with reputable antique dealers, you know, just to be sure. If the eyeglasses in question have plastic material, you can tell their age by having a simple age test performed on them. Just make sure it is by a professional who won’t harm or devalue the frames – it’d be tragic.
What Old Glasses Are Worth
You are probably wondering whether antique glasses are any valuable to begin with so here we go, yes! And as we’ve already seen, the value of these accessories is influenced more by their condition and popularity than age. This means while they are really valuable antique eyeglasses, there are also old and mass reproduced ones that won’t go for a good amount.
On the other hand, there are newer eyeglasses that go for way more prices than rare old ones. More factors that influence the value of antique eyewear are whether or not the prescription lenses can be inserted onto an old frame without the glass getting damaged.
The material on antique eyeglasses counts for something too as those made from pure gold are more valuable than silver or steel wire eyeglasses. Celebrity endorsement of antique eyeglasses also determines its worth as fans want to dress up like their favourite celebrities. Of course who and where antique eyeglasses were made is a determining factor for value with hallmarked ones being rare and valuable.
10 Most Valuable Antique Eyeglasses
#1 Antique 12K Yellow Gold Reading Glasses
#2 Antique Optometrist trade sign Wall bracket Yellow eyeglasses
#3 Extremely Rare Early 1800s Georgian Victorian 15K Gold Crystals C.W. DIXEY Lorgnette Specs
#4 Antique Victorian 18K Yellow Gold Folding Lorgnette Opera Glasses
#5 Cartier Vitesse 1991 Vintage sunglasses
#6 Cartier Vertigo 1991 Vintage sunglasses
#7 Rare Antique Solid Silver Spectacles
#8 Rare Antique Handmade Panto Eyeglasses/Spectacles Frames
#9 Rare Antique Handmade Round Eyeglasses/Spectacles Frames
#10 Antique Russian Empire Gold Glasses Frame
Cleaning Your Old Eyewear
Antique eyeglasses have been around for a rather long time and will need to be cleaned especially if they’ve been lying somewhere untouched for ages. Cleaning of these old eyeglasses should be done carefully and with gentle material like a soft polishing cloth.
Beware of solutions that may damage the eyeglasses’ delicate materials though. As for repairs, leave those to professionals who have the proper skill and restoration tools.
After cleaning the glasses, use a magnifying glass and torch to look for any markings.
Lastly, always wear old eyeglasses gently since most of the material used to make them including celluloid, early plastic and tortoiseshell gets brittle with age. If you decide to display them as a trophy collection, do so in hardshell display cases.
Antique eyeglasses revived
You now know how to go about identifying antique eyeglasses according to their markings, type, material, style, and shape among other factors. You can also determine their worth and care for them properly. Remember to make good use of reference materials, online resources, the antique communities and experts if unsure about anything.
Do you have any questions on the identification and valuation of antique eyeglasses? We’d love to hear from you in the comments section!