These days, it is a matter of course: When your vision deteriorates and your eyes grow weaker, you go to your optometrist or ophthalmologist and have a pair of spectacles fitted. But this was not always the case: It wasn’t until the 13th century that people could actually improve their eyesight with the assistance of visual aids.
The Mayans, the Egyptians, the Chinese and the Greeks were all great cultures that made incredible accomplishments thousands of years ago. Yet when it came to maintaining vision, even the greatest scholars proved helpless. Back then, just like today, it was common for human eyes to weaken as people aged.
The great Roman orator Cicero complained about how bothersome it was for him to have to have slaves read out texts. Emperor Nero watched his beloved gladiator battles through an emerald. Greek philosopher Ptolemy (around 150 A.D.) was familiar with the first laws of light refraction, but it wasn’t until more than 1,000 years later that Arab mathematician and astronomer Alhazen identified the law of refraction that was essential to good vision.
Ultimately, Italian monks were the ones who crafted the first semi-shaped ground lenses in the 13th century. These lenses worked like magnifying glasses. To make the lenses, the monks used a type of quartz called beryl. Only a few years later - in 1267 - Oxford Franciscan monk Roger Bacon provided scientific proof that small letters could be magnified with lenses that were ground in a specific fashion.
The glassworks of Murano in Venice, which still enjoy worldwide fame today, can claim - and justifiably so - to be the birthplace of spectacles. In the 13th century, they were the only factory that had the ability to manufacture the absolutely essential soft glass. The first quality specifications were defined a short time later. These spectacles, called reading aids, had a convex ground lens. The edge was made from iron, horn or wood. Only a single mountain style was available at the time. In general, the first spectacles were used exclusively as visual aids to enable far-sighted individuals to read.
It wasn’t until around 200 years later that the first spectacles that resembled modern glasses at least to some extent were manufactured: Rivet spectacles were replaced by temple spectacles. The frame consisted of one piece. Naturally, only wealthy people could afford the spectacles made from iron or bronze.
In Spain, particularly large models of spectacles were considered a status symbol. Leather nose bridges also came into use for the first time ever as a way of making the visual aid more comfortable to wear. The greatest problem at that time was actually the setting. The spectacle frame would consistently slide off the nose and in many cases was so heavy that users found these spectacles to be rather uncomfortable to wear.
The so-called Nuremberg rimmed spectacles appeared on the market in the 18th century. People gave them the not-so-flattering name of “nose-crushers” – but they became a smash hit nevertheless, offering a level of wearing comfort that until then had been considered impossible.
Around the end of the 18th century, spectacles with a single lens called monocles became very trendy. The monocle was worn by society’s dignified ladies and gentlemen in Germany and England. The French preferred the “pince-nez” (nose-pincher) spectacles. Also spectacles with a single lens, they were not only worn on the nose, but were also sustained by the muscles around the eye. The French version had the advantage that it could be put away quickly when in the company of others because Germany’s western neighbours were still embarrassed to be caught wearing their pince-nez.
It wasn’t until the first 20 years of the last century that spectacles acquired their current look and anatomically perfect design. Today, spectacles come in virtually all shapes and materials – and the options are boundless. Spectacles have established themselves as the most important visual aid worldwide and have become popular fashion accessories for many.