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A Study of Metals for Vintage Wire Frame Glasses

When looking for vintage spectacles from the 1800s and the first half of the 1900s, metal wire frame glasses will likely be the style you see most often. Metal was the material of choice among opticians in the 19th and 20th centuries. It was durable and simple to manufacture. Until plastics came about in the mid-1900s, metal was also one of the most affordable options.

Today, gold, silver, and other metal rimmed glasses have an antique look that makes them one of a kind accessories. Learn about the different metals used in manufacturing vintage glasses to help you choose which style is right for you.

Types of Metals Used for Wire Rim Glasses

Gold and silver had been commonly used metals in accessories and glasses for centuries, and remained popular. They were highly obtainable, relatively inexpensive, and easily shaped into the round glasses or oval glasses common at the time.

But recent advances in chemical science at the beginning of the 1800s had created other metals that were even more affordable and versatile than gold and silver for eyeglasses. These included:

  • Brass – A mixture of copper and zinc, brass has an almost golden color. Brass eyeglasses were more inexpensive than gold.
  • German Silver – Invented in 1829, German silver looks like genuine silver, but is actually composed of nickel, copper, and zinc. It was cheaper and more durable than silver, making German silver glasses popular.
  • Common Steel – Steel contains carbon and iron. Steel glasses were common for their durability and often look like silver.
  • Blued Steel – The bluing process uses an oxidized layer to keep the steel from rusting, and gives the metal a blue coloring. Blued steel eyeglasses are often from the Civil War era.

Gold and silver frames were typically alloys to make them affordable and provide structural stability since both metals are easily bendable. A popular silver alloy was known as “coin silver,” which you will often find when looking for antique silver glasses. It consists of 80 to 90% silver and the remainder copper.

Tortoiseshell and animal horn were alternatives to wire, but they did not offer the same durability as metals. This meant they were less frequently used during the 19th and early 20th centuries, and even fewer pairs of vintage tortoiseshell glasses from that time have survived.

How Wire Eyeglasses Frames Were Constructed

For brass and steel frames, the optical manufacturer would shape the commercially made wire into the desired shapes for eye wires, temples, and bridge. With gold and silver, however, there were various options for making the wire, and each method would produce glasses with different price ranges and durability.

The first method was “filled” wire. Gold filled wire was made by layering dozens of thin sheets of either 10k or 25k gold around each other until the wire reached the needed thickness. 

The alternative was silver plate or gold plate glasses. The interior of the hardware would be an inexpensive alloy like steel or brass and the outside was covered with a thin layer of gold or silver. Often more affordable, the plate would often begin to rub off on these glasses after years of use.

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Take a deep dive into the study of metals used in vintage wire frame glasses. Understand the unique qualities of different metals, guiding you in choosing the perfect frame and ensuring precise glasses measurements.

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