Antiques: Sunglasses under the sun

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If there are only two things worn by almost everyone in Palm Springs, they have to be cell phones and sunglasses. As I think it will be a long time before anyone collects cell phones – or at least I hope so – let’s take a look at this last one.

Although a staple for many in the sunny desert, sunglasses have an interesting history and have been gaining increasing interest from collectors in recent years. Here’s a look with no squinting required.

Remarkably enough, sunglasses go back a long way. The first seem to have appeared in China in the 12th century, but not for the purpose of aiding vision. The lenses were crudely made from a dark variety of quartz and were obviously intended to hide the wearer’s facial expressions in court. Gradually their use spread to Europe, and by the 15th century sunglasses intended for outdoor wear could be found in Italy and elsewhere. In the 1700s, experiments with tinted and corrected lenses gave rise to the modern era of eyewear we enjoy today.

Designer shades like this with Paloma Picasso's Imprimatur ($185) deliver a designer aesthetic.

Fast forward to the turn of the 20th century and the era of Hollywood movie stars. Early in the movie industry, actors discovered that sunglasses helped protect their eyes from the glare of studio lights. Sam Foster was among the first to recognize the trend, and by the late 1920s his company Foster Grant was producing sunglasses by the thousands.

By the mid-1930s, the US Army had taken notice and commissioned Bausch & Lomb to create a special aviator version that would account for the light found at higher altitudes. Soon after, Edwin Land of Polaroid made some inventions, and the polarized lens was born.

After World War II, trendy sunglasses made their mark thanks to a clever marketing campaign by Foster Grant, and here we are today. Like many accessories, China is the world’s largest producer with some 120 million pairs exported each year. The basic elements – frames and lenses – can be made from plastic and acrylic, so a usable pair from the Far East can be had for just a few dollars. All the same, glass lenses with technical coatings, a frame adorned with bling-bling and a designer imprimatur can send prices skyrocketing. And this is where many collectors begin to take an interest in it.

Military sunglasses like these ($15) are always popular with collectors.

Today, the two high-end giants are Luxottica with brands like Costa, Oakley and Ray Ban and Safilo Group with a stable that includes Carrera, Hugo Boss and Smith. Both companies offer a wide range of glasses, some of which are especially aimed at collectors.

A million varieties can be found on eBay, with prices for all but the most august in the comfortable triple-digit range. With this kind of assortment available at fairly reasonable prices, it’s rich ground for collecting.

Like wristwatches, sunglasses also serve a purpose so you can wear your latest finds without just adding new dust magnets to your shelf. Galleries like ours have dozens of choices at every price point under the sun. And since we’re definitely in the sun here, it might be time to take a look.

Mike Rivkin and his wife, Linda, are longtime residents of Rancho Mirage. For many years he was an award-winning catalog editor and authored seven books, as well as countless articles. Now he is the owner of the Palm Springs Antique Galleries. His antiques column appears Saturdays in The Desert Sun. Want to send Mike a question about antiques? Email him at [email protected]

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