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Where Did Your Cool Sunglasses Come From?

Nov 11, 2021

There are some classic cinematic moments where you can't picture the scene without sunglasses. In Breakfast at Tiffany's, Audrey Hepburn is outside of a jewelry store wearing a formal evening gown and sunglasses from Oliver Goldsmith - Manhattans.

If there's one thing Hollywood can teach us about custom sunglasses, it's that you don't have to be a spy or a secret agent to feel confident and motivated when wearing them.

In fact, wearing sunglasses with your outfit can instantly help you look sharp and inspired even if your day didn't quite go the way you had planned so far — so who knows? Maybe with your top-quality eyewear on that special someone will finally take notice of how suave and collected you look as they walk past!

Sunglasses have been the main accessory of high society since they first became popular in 1915. As sunglasses mainly serve to protect the eyes, it’s surprising that these iconic glasses remain quite popular amongst the rich and famous, but this could be because celebrities are well aware that all eyes are on them during any public appearance!

Glamorous sunglasses are not usually the smartest way to stay cool when it's hot outside. Safety glasses, inflatable armbands, bicycle helmets, and high-vis vests seem like they're never going to be the ones in style, do they? That may well be true. But shades certainly can be.

Perhaps it's because, unlike other practical items that are meant to shape your natural form, sunglasses hide while simultaneously conveying the sense of mystery and secrecy about their wearer. Because they conceal your eyes, wearing sunglasses grants its wearers a feeling of privacy, masking the direction of their gaze so others may wonder about their exact thoughts.

Sunglasses are dark for a reason. They block out most natural light — otherwise known as white light — which is made up of many different elements that can be separated using a prism. The human eye can only detect a tiny fraction of the light emitted by the Sun. But these are their wavelengths, ranging from red light (with the longest wavelengths) to violet light (with the shortest). Such lights are invisible to our eyes, but can still cause harm.

The Cool Way To Protect Your Eyes From The Sun

Infrared radiation is emitted by the sun in vast amounts, but the small amounts that reach our eyes pose little to no risk. Ultraviolet (UV) radiation which is off the other end of the visible spectrum can be a threat to our health in several ways. UV rays can break chemical bonds and damage DNA molecules in the delicate cells of our eyes, which can lead to cataracts and cancers.

Until the early twentieth century, no one knew how harmful ultraviolet radiation could be. It was only discovered in 1801 by William Herschel, who also named it "ultraviolet" because he deemed it invisible to the human eye. The true risks were not fully appreciated, however, until medical experts began testing them on their own eyesight.

First invented in the mid-19th century, sunglasses were originally intended only as a way to protect weak eyes from the harsh rays of the sun. It wouldn’t be until a full century later that the widespread popularity of sunglasses would kick-off — and it had nothing to do with eye health.

Everything seemed roughly the same in the early 1900s when glassworkers in Northern England began to complain of either losing their sight or suffering cataracts. By some estimates, this number was 25 times higher than the rest of the population at that time.

A new piece of legislation passed in Britain on industrial injuries meant that the glassblower's cataract became eligible for compensation in 1908. The Royal Society sent Lord William Crookes, an octogenarian physicist, to Lancashire factories to investigate the cause of the condition.

Crookes experimented and published his findings in the Philosophical Magazine and Journal of Science. His conclusions, that infrared radiation was responsible for glassblowers' cataracts, became very well respected and considered enough to establish infrared as a separate form of electromagnetic radiation. The early furnace temperatures were around 2200 degrees C, but hotter furnaces later cracked the 3500-degree mark - enough to cause cataracts even though the heat wasn't localized to any area as small an area as it is closest to the Sun.

Crookes set out to design spectacles that would protect glassblowers from infrared rays, experimenting with more than 300 different types of glass in his laboratory.

The New Goggles That Changed The History of Glasses

During his research, he discovered various compounds that could minimize glare, UV, and infrared radiation. Over time, he found a formula for a lightly tinted sage-green glass, called Crookes Glass 246 that blocked 98% of infrared light.

Crookes experimented to create protective eyewear for glassblowers. After some time he discovered that his work could be useful in other fields. Crookes Glass 249, a pale-blue shade, blocked visible light, while also intercepting the most harmful types of ultraviolet radiation.

Fashioning a new item from such a compound, Crookes put it into spectacle frames and wore them on a walk with his wife along the chalk cliffs of England’s south coast during the hot summer of 1911. The invention received much publicity in the trade magazines, and soon “Crookes lenses” were being hawked to holiday-makers on both sides of the Atlantic as protection from harmful ultraviolet rays.

Because of the historical association between health and tinted glasses, early advertisers emphasized how discreet appearance was reassuring to people worried about their appearance after wearing tinted lenses. Soon enough, knock-offs flooded the market. While the curious scientist did get something out of his discovery - the patent - which ensured a good retirement, no crooks profited from Crookes’ breakthrough either.

As Neil Handley, a curator at the College of Optometrists in London explains, by 1918 people were more likely to be buying sunglasses that met the company's standard rather than just crooks. Sunglasses were the flight goggles of the 1920s and ‘30s and commercial pilot uniforms lent sunglasses a fashionable air.

In the '30s, Hollywood began playing a part in the way that sunglasses were perceived. When photos started to emerge of stars such as Joan Crawford wearing sunglasses behind the scenes, whether it was to shield her eyes from the lights in theaters or to conceal her lifestyle from being made public, shades could be considered inseparable with a celebrity lifestyle.

How Fashionable Sunglasses Can Harm Your Eyes

Eyewear can be a double-edged sword. It was designed for eye protection, but some more fashionable designs may sacrifice some of that protection. The original goal of providing ultraviolet protection seems to have fallen by the wayside. That’s not good because it means your eyes are absorbing more radiation than you need to be exposed to on top of what is already happening during the day.

In the 1970s, things began to improve when the industry began to adopt safety standards, but even today it is common for counterfeit designer sunglasses to be produced by unlicensed factories.

In 1928, the Royal Society issued a report on glassblowers' cataracts. It was found that attempts to persuade workers to wear protective lenses had failed. The reason was that the "British workman” dared not wear sunglasses. Consequently, many accidents occurred because glasses could not be worn under a large variety of working conditions. Fashion-wise, sunglasses were considered bold from the moment they were introduced.


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