Antique eyeglass frames were made in a wide variety of styles and materials, ranging from the wire-rimmed, wrap-around type worn in the 19th century to the exotic "cat's eye" shapes of the 1950s. Identifying the frame style can provide valuable clues about when the glasses were made. Likewise, determining the material can help pinpoint the decade of manufacture. Reference books are a great help in researching these factors, particularly since many antique frames are unmarked. Vintage styles are now being reproduced, so it's important for serious collectors to be able to correctly identify original antique frames.
Seek out reference books and online resources that provide photos of popular eyeglass frame styles from the past. Familiarize yourself with styles and materials, as well as eyeglass frame manufacturers and marks.
Gently clean the frames by rubbing them with a soft, dry polishing cloth. This will often reveal markings which have been obscured by years of dirt.
Using a flashlight and magnifying glass, look carefully for any markings, which are typically located on the inside of the temple pieces, but may be found anywhere on the inside of the frame. According to the "Guide to Vintage Eyeglass Makers Marks & Companies," marks can include the temple length, a maker's mark, the country of origin and gold content for wire frames. If the frames are unmarked or if the marks are faded, the eyeglasses can be dated by determining the style and material.
Identify the material of the frames. Are they wire rims or tortoise shell, or are they made from popular early- to mid-20th century materials such as celluloid, Bakelite or early plastic? Familiarize yourself with these different materials by referring to reference books and Internet sources.
Look at the style of the eyeglass frames. Are they round, with long, wrap-around temple pieces (popular in the 1800s), "cat's eye" style, with slanted tips, or square-shaped? Refer to reference materials to identify the popular shapes and styles of different eras.
Reproduction frames abound on today's market, so if you're seeking out vintage eyeglasses, make sure you go to a reputable dealer. Newer plastics can be distinguished from older plastics and Bakelite by performing simple tests. However, these should always be done by a professional who knows how to do age testing without harming or devaluing the frames.
Be careful when cleaning old frames, as certain solutions may cause delicate materials to deteriorate. Repairs should always be done by a professional who has the knowledge and the proper tools to restore antique frames. If you decide to wear your vintage eyeglasses, treat them gently, as wire, tortoiseshell, celluloid and early plastics tend to become brittle and fragile with age. Always keep your vintage eyeglasses in a display case or a hardshell eyeglasses case.