Spectacles: A Tale of Serendipity, Science and Design III

This is the third on a series of three posts about glasses.

Why it took so long between the invention of spectacles and the design of temple spectacles, remains a mystery. It may have to do with the fact that spectacles, for a long time, were mostly used for short-distance jobs. It may also have to do with the fact that as early as in the sixteenth century Spanish aristocrats started wearing temple-less spectacles to appear more dignified and important, or so they thought (as well as aristocrats from other European and Asian countries that copied them and started also wearing spectacles as a sign of intelligence and nobility); spectacles wore by aristocrats became trendy, and people like to follow trends.

There is still one more highlight in the tale of serendipity, science and design that the history of spectacles is. Albeit hinted earlier, it only happened in the second half of the twentieth century, when spectacles became much more than a vision aid, much more than an effective way to double the active life of everyone who does fine work, much more than a progression tool; spectacles became a design item, an in-your-face (fashion) statement, an extension of ourselves.

During the second half of the twentieth century frames went from being kept in a drawer from where the optician would pull out a pair for you to try, to be shown in shinny Fifth Avenue windows. In 1947, Christian Dior founded his spectacles branch, and it is difficult, if not impossible, to think of a renowned fashion designer whose brand does not have a spectacle branch. Designers were successful at redefining spectacles for everyone. If you do not wear the same tie every day, why would you want to wear the same pair of spectacles for two years? Spectacles are similar to makeup, for example, in their ability to change looks, and those who wear them can tweak the way they look. Spectacles are no longer the naive vision aid we met (only) seven hundred years ago. And the truth is, society has embraced the new role spectacles play.

No long ago, kids who wore spectacles were called four-eyes and were ridiculed, now friends of those who wear spectacles wants them, and some even get upset when they discover they do not need them. Kids enjoy matching their outfits with spectacles, and so do adults, who wear different styles for their different lifestyles; some wear them even though they have perfect vision. People wear spectacles with pride, they no longer hide behind minimal rimless spectacles. Some have even become icons on the faces of John Lennon, Mohandas Gandhi (whose spectacles were sold by almost $2 million as part of a collection that included also a pair of leather sandals, a pocket watch, a plate, and a bowl), and Elton John.

The first place you look when you meet someone is in the eyes, where spectacles may or may not be resting; some say eyes are the window to the soul—and, for what is worth, they can be dressed. Physical limitations may be overcome with ingenuity, and we may not even understand how. Spectacles were invented by down-to-earth monks and glassblowers long before scientists understood the physics behind them. Innovation may also be a consequence of ingenuity. The convenience of temple spectacles may seem obvious now, but the fact that they took over four hundred years to be implemented suggests otherwise. Finally, ingenuity may also be behind being able to look at something from a whole new perspective, and set new rules. In the world of spectacles, ingenuity has led to invention, to innovation and to redefinition. 


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