American Optical History
Recollections of Former AO Employees

RECOLLECTIONS OF THE EVOLUTION OF EYEWEAR DESIGN

Robert (Bob) Lancey –
American Optical Company – (1946 – 1971)


Bob Lancey - April 2002 next to picture in the Southbridge Conference Center


Until the early 1950s, there was little or no concern for fashion in eyewear.  A 1940 Hollywood studio study, however, illustrated a relationship between facial contours and lens shapes.  Nevertheless, glasses were considered therapeutic devices to hold a pair of corrective lenses.  If there were any concern for “fashion,” it was simply to make eyewear inconspicuous.  By and large, most individuals were reluctant to have to wear glasses.  However, an indication of the approach of “mid-life” was a biological change in the eyes which necessitated that old “fully extended arm to read” syndrome.  Having to wear glasses was in, many cases, a tip of one’s age.  Unkind remarks were often aimed at those individuals who “had” to wear glasses.  This, in the not too distant future, would change for the better.

American Optical created (perhaps in the 1940s) the semi-rimless design.  This concept was a simple gold-filled wire across the brow attached to an engraved “bridge” which rested on the nose.  The lenses, with tiny screws, were attached to the bridge.  Temples were made from gold-filled wire.  This construction was called the “Numont,” perhaps derived from the words “new” and “mounting.”  There were various styles of engraved bridges.  However, the emphasis was on simplicity, inconspicuousness and comfort.  This, they had achieved and the Numont construction was enthusiastically accepted by the optical professions.  However, to make the Numont construction somewhat more sturdy, the “Rimway” was developed which was basically the Numont construction except a screw was attached to the lenses in the area where the temples met the front of the mounting.  This construction used the same bridges and temples as in the Numont and enjoyed equal acceptance.

Complete gold-filled “full” frames, those with rims around the entire lenses, were made for more “sturdier” wear and were given such a name as “Sampson” to suggest strength.

Plastic (zyl) frames were given little consideration during this period.  Eyewear made of plastic material were available as less expensive frames.  The word, zyl, short for the English word, “rezylonite” was shortened to “zylonite” and further shortened to “zyl.”  During World War II, plastic became a material that could be used in many cases where previously metal was appropriate.  New plastic formulations, patterns and colors soon found wide usage in the manufacture of eyewear.  Early plastic frames such as the “Pennington,” “Weymouth” and “Brockton” were available in the three basic optical frame colors at that time:  Demi-Amber, Demi-Blond and Pink Crystal were forerunners of the many successful plastic frames produced by the American Optical Company.

Having stated this, the fact still remained that little concern was given to the cosmetic effect of eyewear by American frame manufacturers.  Fashionable frames in new shapes and colors primarily from France and Italy, were making inroads in the United States through eyewear professionals:  Opticians, Optometrists and Ophthalmologists.  These new, and unique “foreign” eyewear designs gained rapid acceptance by the American frame wearer.

At this time, I was in the Frame Sales Department as a sales promotion person.  I recall the occasion when Victor Kniss, then President of the American Optical Company, came to the sales department inquiring if it were possible to produce frames with more timely styling.  As a result, I was sent to the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence, R.I. to interview students soon to graduate who showed a creative talent.  There were no such persons as “frame designers” at this time.  They simply did not exist.  Two graduates were hired, a closet enlarged, and, thus, the first frame design studio in the industry came into being.  It was a case of trial and error until these new “frame designers” working with engineers and model makers, were able to design acceptable products.

Fashion designers abroad were rendering their names to frame manufacturers in order to introduce the influence of fashion to eyewear.  American Optical Company, at that time, entered negotiations with Madame Elsa Schiaparelli of 21 Place Vendome, Paris, France.  Madame Schiaparelli, at that time, was an extremely popular, well-known fashion designer.  In 1952 an agreement was finalized and the Schiaparelli Collection concept was undertaken.  As I recall, this was the very first designer collection of eyewear to be launched in the United States.  The Schiaparelli Collection was comprised of 90 different frames in numerous styles, sizes, ornamentations and colors.  Each style was given an appealing French name such as “La Mondaine” (woman of the world), Feu d’Artfice (fireworks) and Plume D’Or (golden feather) to name a few.  Designs in the previous metal collection were ornamented with cultured pearls and diamonds.  “The Crown Jewels,” a platinum rimless frame set with diamonds, was valued at $10,000.

Presentation of The Schiaparelli Collection was given individually and privately to members of the professions.  Trained American Optical sales representatives made these presentations in hotel suites; each presentation as well as guest appearances on television promoting The Schiaparelli Collection.  Other optical manufacturers soon became affiliated with both foreign and domestic designers creating signature lines following the lead by American Optical Company.

Today in the year, 2002, hardly a frame is without a fashion designer, sports figure or celebrity signature.  Fashion in eyewear today is as important as fashion in apparel.  The out-dated expression:  “Men seldom make passes at girls who wear glasses” no longer is true … and as I always denounced this expression with the explanation that … “Men do make passes at girls who wear glasses, it all depends on their frames.”


Former AO Employee Fred Joslin wearing Numont frame

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Dick Whitney May 7, 2002

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