Plastic started coming into mainstream use in the early 1900s and suddenly offered a wider range of options for vintage glasses frames. Before, glasses wearers had been limited to wire rim frames, and occasionally fragile animal horn or tortoiseshell.
New plastics provided a range of new looks for glasses, with exciting shapes, colors, and affordability, giving rise to all of the popular frames for vintage sunglasses and eyeglasses that are still in style today.
Timeline of Plastic Glasses
The first plastic glasses appeared sometime in the first decades of the 1900s as glasses manufacturers started to replace the thick horn rimmed frames that had previously been made of horn with new plastics. As plastics evolved over the following years, so did the glasses as optical companies relied on the following materials:
- Bakelite – First discovered in 1904, Bakelite is a rigid man made plastic that quickly became popular in everything from household goods to jewelry to early machine guns. Optics companies began also using it in glasses frames as well, but it is prone to cracking in cold conditions. Due to this, few original vintage Bakelite glasses have been able to survive the century since they were first made.
- Cellulose Nitrate – This plastic, derived from cotton, has been recognized by many brand names throughout the years, but is most often known as zyl. This name comes from the American Zylonite Company. Started in 1881, this company quickly expanded to be one of the best known producers of zylonite before going out of business in 1891 as the result of a patent dispute. Ironically, the American Zylonite Company never made glasses frames, and instead made piano keys, billiard balls, and a range of other goods. But the name was so well known that zyl became the primary way to describe this material. Cellulose nitrate stayed in use in the 1930s after Bakelite, but is flammable if it comes too close to heat and is now prohibited in glasses use.
- Cellulose Acetate – The successor of cellulose nitrate was cellulose acetate. Also made from cotton wood pulp, it has a different production process that renders it more stable while still keeping the colourfast and glossy characteristics. It was first created in 1864, but development for mainstream use coincided with the rise of cat eye glasses and browline glasses in the 1950s, making acetate the preferred material for plastic glasses. Because of the early popularity of zyl, you will often hear zyl and cellulose acetate used interchangeably.
- Nylon – Nylon is a newer glasses material and the plastic was first synthesized in 1935. Nylon has the benefit of being flexible unless it is allowed to dry out, in which case it quickly becomes brittle. Because of its affordability and easy manufacturing, nylon was generally a choice for sunglasses. With later nylons, scientists have incorporated different additives that increase nylon’s strength and durability, so you are more likely to find genuine plastic sunglasses from the 1970s and later made of nylon.
- Optyl – Optyl is the brand name for an epoxy resin that the Carrera Eyewear company patented in 1964. It is almost 30% lighter than cellulose acetate and long lasting. Because it is a trade name, you will only find Optyl glasses available from brands like Carrera and a few other Italian optical manufacturers.
Generally when you are looking for vintage plastic glasses or sunglasses, they will most often be made of cellulose acetate. This material has offered clear benefits since the early years in terms of creating a beautiful, vibrant, and durable pair of men’s or women’s glasses that you can still rely on as your daily fames today.