The History of Pince-Nez Eyeglasses: Part One

As with all inventions in the evolution of human technology, the early dates of lens developments are clouded in the past. Certainly the discovery of the Antikythera Mechanism dated to 74 B.C. is a stark awakening to the ingenuity and production of scientific items long before we attributed credit for their onset to their distant origins.

Many schools of scientific discovery place the onset of magnification lenses to the period between 1250 and 1285 and cite the references and drawing made by European monks and scholars as evidence of that dated origin.

Many authors disagree with my writings wherein I speculate that magnifying lenses existed from well before the year 1 B.C.

We have countless examples of the existence of quality lapidary production from the time of the early Egyptians onward. In particular I refer to one of the very first common forms of polished gemstones, the cabochon. Being essentially flat on the bottom and lenticular on the top, the cabochon is quite naturally a magnifying lens. Furthermore, any culture that had primitive glass as a result of the presence of sand and camp fires would be familiar with the phenomenon of a crude sphere of glass and its properties of magnification. The lapidary polishing of clear quartz into a sphere, extensively documents in early wood cuts, further establishes that cultures centuries back into the B.C time frame had clear or lightly colored glass, quartz or agate that would have served to act as magnifier when executing fine surface work. This goes a long way toward explaining how some of the earliest stone incising and print rendering was done at a size level that defies the use of simply the naked eye. We have the evidence in the form of the executed art and lapidary work, and we have the clear method by which such “magnifying stones” could be generated. Why some insist on believing that there was no magnification lens prior to 1250 remains a mystery.

Certainly the first magnification lenses that are extensively documented are “scribing stones”. These were rock crystal hemispherical polished quartz that when held above fine print, added the aging eye in seeing clearly the finer lettering and decorations of illuminated manuscripts. When examining the decorative embellishments on the pages of the Book of Kells in Ireland, I was able to clearly identify pen work that would have been impossible without magnification. This is also true of early Celtic granulation where fantasy animals only one millimeter in size circled the perimeter of chain links made in 900 B.C.

The first common and practical use of a single magnifying lens was the monocle. It was a single flat bottomed lenticular lens held by a perimeter wire in a grove, or later a wooden or leather circle, usually with a tab or tang for the convenience of holding it. The next evolutionary step in holding two fixed lenses in front of the eyes would certainly have to be the lorgnette, which was developed to an extensive series of refinements including spring loaded folding construction and elaborated decorations with mother of pearl and jeweled surfaces.

The next logical development of this invention was to set a pair of these on a ribbon that could be tied across the eyes like a mask. It was here that people became aware of the need to keep the two lens planes in alignment with each other to ensure that the combined vision of the two eyes looking through the two lenses would be integrated and useful.

The first documented effort at this goal was the “scissors” temples. This was a pair of lenses, each set in a surround with a long tang, the two tangs meeting at a pivot point that allowed the user to widen or narrow the space between them to accommodate the ocular needs of the wearer. In order to free up both hands of the person using the two magnifying lenses, there arose a need to set them in a permanent frame, and to affix that frame in front of the eyes. This is the image we find in the wood cuts of 1250 depicting a wearer holding a set of lenses in a scissors frame held directly in front of the with a sash.

As only the clerics and aristocracy could afford such devices, the early framed lens sets were structured to work with the customs and clothing of the period. The elaborate wigs of the time dictated a need to have long hinged arms proceeding back from the lens set past the “temples” that could be slid into the wig above the ears. Thus the precursor to the modern eyeglass was born. Benjamin Franklin is credited with designing and commissioning such an eyeglass frame. Artisans doing fine work like textile embroidery and lacemaking were benefactors of this new optical device. Ironically, the need for eye correction was viewed as a sign of weakness or disease and notable persons like George Washington obtain “temple sets” with straight arms that could be quickly and easily slid on and then quickly taken off and hidden.

The Emergence of the Pince-Nez

It is possible that Benjamin Franklin’s extensive time spent in France is partially responsible not only for the development of the pince-nez style but also its lingering use of the French words for “to pinch the nose” to describe the device.

We have many early images of persons wearing pince-nez including luminaries such as Tolstoy, Teddy Roosevelt and more recently Morpheus in the Matrix movie series. While the reliability of the gripping ability of pince-nez is reasonably high, it should be noted that many early units were affixed with a chain to keep them from falling to the floor when they left their perch.

Pince-nez appeared in large quantities at the World’s Fairs in the form of early mass manufactured items in early celluloid, and faux tortoise. In our Framefixers Eyeglass Company Youtube videos we have examples from our vintage eyewear library of both the early mass manufactured plastic and spring steel harp type as well as the highly complex and elaborate coil spring activated units that require highly specialized tools and materials to restore. Interestingly enough, the pince-nez was the embodiment of several of the artisan trades wherein the mechanism contains many of the coil springs, rivets and gold work developed in the musical instrument field, as well as the component parts requiring the skills and materials from the jewelry fields.

While its style and look are perhaps now relegated to a past time look and function, the pince-nez does seem to have an appeal to the steampunk crowd as well as the retro period dressers who still admire its dramatic unaided presence on the face as it provides its wearer with corrected vision or shade.

Need work done on your pince-nez eyeglasses? Send them to FrameFixers for repair!