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Getting A Handle On Antique Eyeglasses

For many of us, our only experience with “flip glasses” was that scene in Pretty Woman in which Julia Roberts (as Vivian the prostitute) goes to the opera, ineffectually swings her limp opera glasses by their long handle, and whines, “Mine are broken.”

Flash forward 22 years, and perhaps the next time you saw a pair of these glasses was a few weeks ago, on the November 12, 2012, episode of History’s Pawn Stars entitled Stick to Your Guns. That’s when a man walked into the pawn shop with a pair of fabulous antique platinum “flip glasses”, encrusted with onyx and diamonds. Technically speaking, those “flip glasses” or spectacles on a handle are called lorgnettes. (The name lorgnette comes from the French word lorgner, to take a sidelong look at, and from the Middle French lorgne, which means squinting.) That particular pair of art deco styled lorgnettes on Pawn Stars dated to the 1920s, but such glasses have been around a lot longer than that.

Antique Eyeglasses

Antique lorgnettes

Eyeglasses themselves have been around since the 13th century, and the forerunner of eyeglasses with handles are seen in art dating to the 14th century. But true lorgnettes were invented by George Adams in the 16th century.

Over the years, lorgnettes have been made from tortoise shell, ivory, bone, silver, gold, and other precious metals, some with engraving, mother-of-pearl inlay, enameling, and/or set with gem stones. Some of the most popular and prized lorgnettes were those bearing Art Nouveau designs.

Antique gold Art Nouveau lorgnettes

These antique and vintage viewers are often described as having been used by “fashionable ladies” — those who preferred to make a spectacular display of holding them to their faces rather than suffering the indignity of spectacles. The legacy of elaborately decorated lorgnettes is quite the proof of such things, but ladies weren’t the only ones to fall for them. Fashionable men, even foppishly so, used lorgnettes too. (Let’s face it, men have a lot fewer opportunities to guild themselves with jewelry, so why begrudge them fancy eyeglasses?)

Antique gold-washed silver lorgnette encrusted with jewels

While much is made about the ornate nature and downright bling of these optical devices, the lorgnette’s design wasn’t all fancy novelty and vanity but one of practicality. Adam’s design of folding glasses, pivoting into the handle like the blade of a pocketknife, so that they would fit safely into a pocket was practical. Thanks to his design, ladies and gents alike could now have a portable pair of eyeglasses which could be kept on their person — but not necessarily on their faces — ready when needed. Remember, the shoulder duffel bags (you may call them “purses”) are rather new inventions of fashion. Carrying eyeglasses around was a real problem and Adam’s invention of glasses which fit in a pocket literally fit a need.

In 1825, Robert Betell Bate, another English optician, patented another version of lorgnettes. His version had a smaller handle, allowing the folded lenses (which could then be used as a magnifying glass) to more easily be strung and then hung around your neck or worn on a chatelaine. Later, he would add a spring mechanism which, when activated by a lever, would allow them to “spring” open. Within decades, lorgnettes would be produced in England, France, and America. Over the years, a few more improvements and stylish changes would be made; including, by the late 19th century, making the handles much longer. By the 1920s, lorgnettes were less fashionable in general; both less popular with the masses, and less ornate. However, some, like those seen on Pawn Stars, went to the opposite extreme, allowing one to show off their status by flipping their glasses bearing rich designs and jewels.

The mechanical operations of lorgnettes lent themselves to other practical gadgetry. Mechanical pencils, fans, ear trumpets, and other necessities were incorporated into the design.

Antique lorgnette with ear trumpet

Among the most rare are the watch lorgnettes. This antique folding lorgnette is made of fine 18K gold, engraved on the back and handle, and bears enamel work decorated with a rose diamond-set pattern on the translucent imperial blue guilloche enamel ground. Concealed inside is a fine timepiece. This stunning piece was made circa 1860.

Antique gold watch lorgnette

Eventually, lorgnettes would become the model for today’s opera glasses and, as shown in this 1959 advertisement for Jezebel by Renee of Hollywood lingerie, become a symbol of wealth and class.

Lorgnette featured in vintage lingerie ad


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