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The Oliver Goldsmith collection at the V&A forms a record of the dramatic growth of the eyewear industry in the 20th century. It includes a variety of styles, materials, and colours and charts the evolution of modern eyewear from the ubiquitous hand crafted tortoiseshell frames of the 1920s and 1930s, through the early use of plastics in the 1950s to the more sophisticated materials and manufacturing techniques of the 1970s and 1980s.

Philip Oliver Goldsmith (1890-1947) entered the optical trade in the 1920s. He began as salesman operating from a motorised showroom for the well-known optical firm Raphaels. In 1926 Goldsmith opened his own London workshop and prescription house at 60 Poland Street. Goldsmith aimed to cater to the higher end of the optical market and hired a group of craftspeople who were able to make real tortoiseshell spectacles frames by hand.

At the time these frames were made, tortoise species had not yet been declared endangered, and their shells were very popular for spectacles. In the manufacturing process, the animal's shell was removed, its individual plates separated and then laminated on top of each other to form a block. Then the block was boiled to make it pliable enough to cut it into parts that would become a frame.

In 1930, Philip Oliver Goldsmith’s son Charles Goldsmith (1914-1991) entered the family firm. Throughout the 1930s the company continued to craft tortoiseshell spectacle frames. During the Second World War the Oliver Goldsmith company supplied eyeglasses to members of the armed forces and continued to provide frames to civilian customers. At this time, Charles Goldsmith was also a member of the Home Guard. Tasked with monitoring bombing activity over central London, he spent nights on the roof of the company’s Poland Street offices.

After his father's death in 1947, Charles Goldsmith assumed his father's name of Oliver Goldsmith and became chairman of the firm. Over the next several decades, Oliver Goldsmith helped to make glasses an item of fashion by securing press coverage for the company’s designs and increasing the number of their celebrity clients. His sons A. Oliver (1942-) and Raymond Goldsmith ( 1944-1997) were the third generation of the Goldsmith family to enter the business. A. Oliver Goldsmith began a general apprenticeship in 1959 in order to learn about different aspects of the company. He started as a travelling salesman, selling frames to opticians. He also worked as a frame-maker for several years in the company workshop. From 1965 onwards he worked as the company’s frame designer while his brother Raymond managed the company’s sunglasses business.

By 2011, Oliver Goldsmith, managed by A. Oliver Goldsmith, was one of the few original British eyewear companies still in business. In the early 2000s, their 1960s and 1970s styles became fashionable again, driven by the enthusiasm for so-called ‘vintage’ fashions.

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