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A Brief History of Eyewear

Eyewear such as sunglasses and eyeglasses have a long and fascinating history that spans several centuries and cultures. While the use of reading aids or reading stones dates back to ancient civilizations, the history of eyewear is more brief. The earliest record of reading aid can be traced back to ancient Rome. Lucius Annaeus Seneca, a public official and stoic philosopher born in 4 BC, was recorded to have used a glass globe filled with water as a magnifier to read Roman texts. Over the years the evolution of eyewear has changed tremendously, from its origin as a crude functional device to its use as an affluent accessory, a technical instrument, as military equipment, an article of fashion, and more.

False Origin of Eyeglasses

In 1284, an Italian monk named Salvino D'Armati is credited with inventing the first pair of eyeglasses. Historians have concluded from the evidence that this was a hoax. Salvino died in 1340, he had been a humble artisan who had never in his life dealt with eyeglasses. It is still common for him to be sighted as the inventor despite the lack of evidence. The historian Pasquale Villari created a plaque in Florence in 1855 honoring Salvino D’Armati as the inventor of eyeglasses. However, this plaque was removed in 1900. Unfortunately, the original Italian craftsman who first put a lens in an eyeglass frame is lost to history.

Beginnings of Eyewear Manufacturing

Early eyeglasses were made of two magnifying glasses mounted in a frame that were designed to be held up to the eyes. These frames were usually made from wood, lead, tin or copper, riveted together and held in place above the nose. Eyeglasses remained a relatively niche custom item for several centuries, primarily used by scholars and intellectuals.

The big news from the early 1500s is the introduction of the first metal frames, the oldest of which were manufactured in Nuremberg Germany by local brillenmachers (eyewear makers). Germany held the reputation of making the finest frames available anywhere at the time. It wasn't until the 17th century that eyeglasses began to be mass-produced and became more widely available. This was made possible by the development of new manufacturing techniques, such as the use of grinding wheels and lenses made from high-quality glass.

The Birth of Fashionable Eyewear

As eyeglasses became more prevalent, they also began to be used as a fashion accessory. In the 18th and 19th centuries, eyeglasses were often worn as a sign of intelligence and sophistication. Eyeglasses have been in use since ancient times, but they became more popular in the 18th century due to advances in lens grinding and mounting techniques.

Benjamin Franklin is often credited with popularizing eyeglasses in the 18th century. Franklin was known for his interest in science and technology, and he was one of the first people to publicly wear bifocal eyeglasses which he is said to have invented to improve his own vision and make it easier for him to work on his various projects. Franklin's influence and reputation as a successful inventor and statesman likely contributed to the association of eyeglasses with intelligence and sophistication during this time period.

A Short History of the Monocle

In addition to eyeglasses, the concept of eyewear as a fashion accessory has also evolved over time. In the 19th and early 20th centuries it was common for men to wear monocles, which were single lenses mounted in a frame that were worn over one eye. Monocles were often associated with wealth and sophistication, and were popular among the upper class. One of the earliest known wearers of the monocle was the antiquarian or antique expert Philipp Von Stosch who wore a monocle in Rome in the 1720s, in order to closely examine engravings and antique engraved gems.

The monocle, however, did not become an established article of gentlemen's apparel until the nineteenth century. The template for rimless eyeglasses dates back to around 1814 when an Austrian inventor named J.F. Voigtlander marketed a rimless monocle. At the time, eyeglasses were not considered a trendy fashion statement everywhere and in some areas carried an association of being for the elderly or a member of the clergy. Clergymen tended to be literate enough to need reading glasses and preferred simple eyeglasses such as Voigtlander’s simple style.

The rimless eyeglass was replaced with the more comfortable loop of a metal rim in the 1830's onward and in the 1890's an edge-like extension was added known as a gallery, which allowed the monocle to be more secure in the eye and avoided the eyelash getting in the way of the lens. Monocles were usually custom fitted to the wearer's ocular orbit often incorporating ivory or precious metals, and were prohibitively expensive for nearly everyone but the rich and educated.

Innovation of Sunglasses

Sunglasses have a relatively shorter history compared to eyeglasses and eyewear. As the world ushered in the 20th century, modern styles of sunglasses began to appear. They became quite popular when movie stars began using them to protect their eyes from the bright studio lights. In 1929, Sam Foster, founder of the Foster Grant of Atlantic City, began the mass production of sunglasses in America. His trade boomed after he sold the first pair of Foster Glass sunglasses on the Boardwalk in Atlantic City.

By the 1930s wearing sunglasses had become a popular fashion trend in the U.S.A. In the 1930s, the Army Air Corps commissioned Bausch & Lomb, an optical firm, to create effective eyeglasses to protect pilots from high altitude glare. Bausch & Lomb perfected a special dark-green tint that served to absorb light in the yellow band of the spectrum. This made it significantly easier for pilots to see while flying aircraft.

In 1936, Edwin Land, the founder of Polaroid Corporation invented Polaroid filters. These filters allowed lenses to protect against harmful UV rays for the first time, making sunglasses more desirable for comfort and practicality. With World War II brewing, in 1936 Ray-Ban used a new polarized lens technology to design anti-glare aviator glasses. A year later the public was able to access the Ray-Ban aviator sunglass model, and it was a hit. This style was coined as the model able to ban the sun's rays.

In the 1950s and 1960s, sunglasses became increasingly popular as a fashion accessory, with various styles and designs emerging to suit different tastes and trends. Today, sunglasses are worn by people of all ages and walks of life and are available in a wide range of styles. In addition to their practical use, sunglasses have also played a significant role in popular culture and have been worn by many iconic figures throughout history.

Why are Glasses so Expensive today?

The answer is that the Italian firm Luxottica owns 80% of the US designer sunglasses market and has a major presence in many other developed and emerging countries. This is a classic example of an oligopoly where the dominant brands have significant market power. Luxottica’s portfolio includes proprietary brands such as Ray-Ban, Oakley, Vogue Eyewear, Persol, Oliver Peoples, Arnette, Costa del Mar and Alain Mikli, as well as licensed brands including Tiffany & Co, Giorgio Armani, Burberry, Bulgari, Chanel, Coach, Dolce&Gabbana, Ferrari, Michael Kors, Prada, and Ralph Lauren - just to name a few. Lack of effective competition has driven up prices across brand name sunglasses and eyeglasses alike.

Eyeglasses, sunglasses, and other eyewear have a long and fascinating history that has evolved significantly over time. From their early beginnings in ancient Rome to their current status as a fashion accessory - these items have played a significant role in shaping the way we see the world and how we see ourselves in it. (literally)

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