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What is Cellulose Acetate?

If you are looking for vintage classes from the 1940s, 50s, or even today, one of the common terms that you will come across is cellulose acetate. Since the 1940s, this has been the dominant material for any plastic frames on the market. 

Also occasionally known as simply acetate or zyl, all of these describe a high quality plastic that has historically been used in everything from affordable frames to designer frames with attractive results that last for many years.

The Process for Making Cellulose Acetate Glasses 

The discovery of cellulose acetate occurred in 1865, but it would not be until the 1900s that this material started to see more widespread use starting with film for cameras and motion pictures, playing cards, the original Lego bricks in the 1950s, and clothing as acetate fibers. By the 1940s, it was also the main material for vintage plastic glasses frames.

Cellulose acetate is a bio plastic. The cellulose in the name refers to the wood pulp from which the plastic is derived. By the cellulose from the wood pulp with various acids, a chemical reaction creates the rigid cellulose acetate plastic. 

By the 1940s, manufacturers perfected the production process and were able to create high quality glasses with many customization options very quickly, making glasses more affordable for the average consumer. The process for making acetate glasses looks like this:

  • Making Acetate Sheets – One of the main beauties of acetate glasses are the range of colors. This starts in the acetate manufacturing process when the technician adds colors to sheets of acetate, sandwiching many sheets together to create the desired color, layering effects, and thickness. When complete, the sheets cure in a kiln for a number of weeks.
  • Frame Cutting – Next, the frame manufacturer will cut the frame and temples out of the acetate sheets. Today, this process is done with computers and routers, but in the past it was done by hand. Steel dies punch out the general shape of the frame and then the technician can trim off any excess plastic, add nose bridges, and use heat to soften the plastic and create curves. They may also insert a steel wire into the temple piece for added stability.
  • Polishing and Finishing – The manufacturer polishes all of the individual pieces to show off the natural luster of cellulose acetate.
  • Assembly – The final step is to attach the temples to the frames and insert lenses if necessary.

Cellulose acetate has many advantages as a glasses material. Despite the short lifespan many other early plastics – and many plastics today – zyl frames will last for decades. The plastic has enough flexibility and durability that it does not easily crack, and because the color is embedded into the acetate rather than painted on or injected, it does not fade over time. Acetate also has the benefit of being hypoallergenic. 

When you want a pair of vintage plastic glasses that truly embodies a classic look from the 50s, 60s, 70s, or later decades, acetate is the best material. Eyeglasses Warehouse offers vintage cellulose acetate glasses in a range of colors, including everything from black to bright, multicolored frames, and popular shapes like cat eye glasseshorn rimmed glassesbrowline glasses, and others.

The majority of our genuine vintage glasses are optical ready frames made from high quality cellulose acetate that will keep your glasses looking good for decades to come. Browse our inventory of plastic glasses to see all of the amazing styles that are possible with cellulose acetate.

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