In a world of bio-hacking, space tourism, virtual reality, and lightning-speed technological advances, suspending a pair of lenses across your eyes to correct your vision is delightfully anachronistic. For anyone who has ever used 🤓 to self-identify as both spectacle wearer and unashamed philomath, let us delve into the rich history of glasses. 


It is fitting that the origins of glasses are somewhat blurry. While we know the Romans had started to theorise about vision, as evidenced in "Optics," a book written by the mathematician Ptolemy in approximately 160 AD, they did not progress this study into the development of any kind of visual aid. Nevertheless, it is interesting to note that the emperor Nero, whose life predates "Optics," is reputed to have held an emerald to his eyes to shield them from the sun's rays while watching gladiatorial battles. Modern sunglasses have not surpassed such opulence but, unlike Nero's gemstone, do offer protection from UV light.

Emperor Nero with emeralds


Building on the foundations of Ptolemy and the subsequent work of Persian scholar Ibn Sahl, the voraciously studious and industrious Franciscan monks were instrumental in developing and propagating the use of reading stones from 1000 AD onwards. These stones were small polished pieces of glass held over manuscripts to enlarge the letters beneath, allowing the elder monks with failing eyesight to continue to read and study texts.

Reading stone magnifying text 


Over time, as academics gained a greater understanding of optics and the processes for cutting and shaping glass improved, reading stones evolved to become thinner. By 1100 AD, they were mounted into a singular frame with a handle so they could be held in front of the eye. Much of this development was focused in central and northern Italy, a region known for its superior glass production and the presence of Christian religious orders. It is no surprise that it is generally accepted that the first spectacles were created here in around 1286, but by whom remains a mystery. 

The first depiction of glasses in art is in the former monastery of the church of San Nicolò in Treviso. In the fresco, we see Cardinal Hugh of St. Cher deep in concentration, writing at his desk, wearing a pair of simple eyeglasses riveted together over the nose.

Cardinal Hugh of St. Cher wearing glasses


The gift of improved vision quickly spread outside of the world of Christian scholars to people of various vocations, fuelled by the invention of the printing press in 1452, which opened up reading material to the masses. Early frames crafted from bone, leather, and horn were superseded in the 17th century by metal frames, which were lighter, more comfortable, and could be produced cheaply. However, even at this stage, glasses were still in the pince-nez or hand-held construction i.e. they had no temples. Despite the obvious need for a more secure form of eyewear, it was not until 1727 that a British optician, Edward Scarlett, added rigid temples with looped ends to eyeglasses. 

Edward Scarlett glasses with temples


Further development came from across the Atlantic in 1784 when the scientist, writer, and inventor, Benjamin Franklin, created bifocals. Given the addition of temples to eyeglasses, it is surprising that the pince-nez design and the use of monocles remained popular well into the 19th century. In the early part of the 20th century, thanks to new materials such as celluloid and bakelite, improved design, lens innovation, and mass production, glasses exploded in popularity. Being seen on the faces of politicians, Hollywood stars, and musicians helped glasses to shed their association with old age and transformed them into a must-have fashion accessory.

Buddy Holly wearing glasses 

To say that glasses have had a transformative effect on the world is no exaggeration. The enduring appeal of these unique objects that are both medical devices and fashion accessories shows no sign of ending and, quite frankly, the future looks better for it.

Browse our collection of glasses and sunglasses to find your new favourite frame.

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