Making a spectacle of oneself…

When Glenda needed new glasses, in part inspired by an article in The International Routier (back in its Dead-TreeWare days), we thought it would be fun to see if we could make a pair of leather framed spectacles using the old lenses. We enlisted the optician in the project, getting him to turn the lenses as small as he could make them on his equipment. They came to me marked “left” and “right” with a prominent arrow indicating the direction of “up”. They’re still probably 120-130% the size of the originals.

Leather framed spectacles, typical of the 15th century. (Occhiali)

The lenses are sandwiched between two layers of 1.6mm cow hide, with the nose bridge reinforced with hidden bronze wire. The construction method is an approximation at best. I know lenses were held in the horn and bone framed glasses with a spring made from copper-alloy wire but haven’t been able to see a leather framed pair closely enough to work it out. There are a sewn pair similar to this from 16th century Italy, but the stitching may be decorative rather than structural.

Our leather framed spectacles, the pattern with the ties is slightly later than the 15th C pair above.

The tie is fingerloop braided, the other option would be a silk ribbon but modern silk ribbons aren’t as strong as 17th C ribbon due to the thickness and weave. Many 17th century portraits show people with their hands clasped together with a ribbon coming out from between them. This may be a spectacle tie.

Glenda’s worn them a few times, apart from the problems with fogging because the lenses are so close to the face, they frighten the punters at public shows. Not just second glances, we’re talking about grown adults grabbing the kids and pulling them away and screaming. We were just expecting Biggles comments. If you make a pair, keep them for private events.

Three pairs of German leather and horn spectacles. From top, 1583, Dresden; c1600 Nürnberg; c1600 Nürnburg. (Corson)

Leather spectacles may have been a cause of some friction between the guilds, spectacle makers must have sourced leather from the Leather Sellers Guild, no doubt being blamed for forcing the prices of hides up by the various competing leather guilds.”The SMC [Spectacle Makers’ Company] particularly disapproved of leather frames, a forcibly held position that might explain the growth in popularity among the makers for using horn. Leather frames were seized from the noted optician John Yarwell by the Company’s inspection team in 1692.” The College of Optometrists, London, Gallery > Seventeenth Century Spectacles.

There are a number of pairs of leather framed spectacles from 1520 t0 1730 on display at The On-Line Museum and Encyclopedia of Vision Aids


Baker, K., Spectacles in the 17th Century: A Short Summary, in The International Routier Vol 13, No4, Summer 1997-98
Blankert, A., Rembrandt — A Genius and His Impact, National Gallery of Victoria 1997
Corson, R., Fashions in Eyeglasses, Peter Owen, London 1967
Occhiali, G., Eyeware, Chronicle Books, San Francisco, 1997