Watch videos of Oliver Goldsmith talking about the history of the Oliver Goldsmith Eyewear Company and the development of eyeglasses as fashion accessories during the 20th century.
Video: 20th century eyewear (Part 1)
[Oliver Goldsmith] My name is Oliver Goldsmith and I’m third generation of the Oliver Goldsmith Eyewear Company and I’d like to just briefly take you through the history of the company.
My grandfather started the company in 1926 in a small workshop in Poland Street in London’s Soho, making real tortoise shell frames, which were allowed in those days.
This is an example of a real tortoise shell frame that my father wore back in the 30s and the feature of this design is the fact that the sides don’t fold down, they’re cut from the whole one piece of turtle shell, and it’s got this curl side, which would stop the frame from slipping down the nose in hot weather.
You can’t get these today because tortoise shell is banned as a material, but back in the 30s everybody who wore glasses would wear tortoise shell and this is just a very fine example of that period.
My father entered the business in the 30s and during the Second World War the company was seconded to the armed forces to make all their spectacle frames, so there was no question of designing anything special during that period, but in the 50s my father started designing glasses and realised that if the company was going to go forward we had to get publicity. So he created this sun-glass called the Martian and it was worn by Diana Dors, who was an English starlet being promoted and she wore this at the Cannes Film Festival and obviously got photographed wearing it, which was very good publicity for us. The unique feature about the design is the fact that the sides come from the nose, up and around, rather than coming from the side here. I haven’t seen any sunglasses like this on sale since then, but it’s quite unique and it was very popular and also got plenty of publicity apart from Diana Dors.
In 1956 my father was approached by a dress designer called Teddy Tinling, who was very famous for doing Wimbledon clothing for the matches every year. And he asked my father to create a sunglass that would be sort of unique to his clothing. My father designed this particular style called the Tennis Racquet which is fairly obvious because you’ve got two racquets, and on each corner, here and here he put three little pearls in a lace bag to act as the tennis balls. So this was photographed all over the world and was also instrumental in getting our name well known, and possibly even better than Teddy Tinling.
In 2007, I was approached by the Lawn Tennis Museum at Wimbledon, who had spotted my tennis sunglasses, cause we had updated it from the original 1950s one, and they asked me whether they could buy a pair, which I was very happy to give them actually because I like to have everything out on display. This latest sunglasses, it looks like two tennis racquets and to make it more authentic we’ve actually drawn onto the lenses lines to act as the gut of the racquet strings. When these were sold they actually came with two pairs of lenses so when you went to a party you could wear it with the lines on and then you could go to an optician and he would swap the lenses over for the regular ones. So it was a dual purpose pair of sunglasses and definitely the item to wear if you were going to Wimbledon centre court to watch the finals.
So if anyone goes to Wimbledon have a look at the museum and you’ll see this on display.
Video: 20th century eyewear (Part 2)
[Oliver Goldsmith] During the 50s, which was known as the austere years after the war, it was very hard to get people to spend a lot of money on glasses. So my father realised he had to do something unusual to get them to go and buy something. And he created this particular design, which as you can see is fitted with bamboo or Malacca cane as it’s real name is, and this was featured in Vogue magazine and was very, very successful. And the only thing you had to be careful of was not to get the bamboo wet because it might sprout.
I studied designing in 1964, 65 and my very first design that I was allowed to put into production, which I call RIP. The unusual feature about this design is that the nose piece here is flat, whereas normal frames would have an outward bump here. So this was on display, and the bell rang at the showroom and my father went to answer the door and standing there was Authur Askey, who was a comedian and Lord Snowdon, who had recently married Princess Margaret. My father asked, “who’s first” and Authur Askey said “His Lordship’s first stupid, who do you think?”. So my father obviously saw to Lord Snowdon first and he was looking for new spectacles and he came across this pair which was on display, tried it on, loved it and he had this made up for his prescription. He was subsequently photographed at a… judging entries for a glassware show, not optical show but a glassware show for vases etc. And this was a great feeling for me to see my first, my very first production design being worn by a celebrity such as Lord Snowdon.
1974 was the year of the punk and we wanted to get in on the act, so my father and I started rummaging around draws to see what could we find to actually adorn the frames with and make them look like punk glasses. So we found various items like paperclips, bits of chains, studs and various things and we put these onto the sunglasses, showed it to Vogue and Vogue said “Wow, we’ve got to use this”, and they did and then it snowballed on because then we found that our customers such as Harrods, Selfridges, Harvey Nicholls were asking us, can we have them because we’ve got customers coming in asking them, and especially the sloaney set who want to imitate anything which is fashionable at the time. So we had to really dig deep into every draw we could find and get all our staff to look in their draws to find what could they see that we could use to adorn these glasses and they proved to be very, very popular as a sunglass.
Video: 20th century eyewear (Part 3)
[Oliver Goldsmith] My father was really great at getting publicity and sensing good publicity about to happen. When he heard that Diana Spencer was going to go to Australia to talk to her mother about marrying Prince Charles, he realised that this was a major publicity opportunity, and he sent her some sun glasses to wear on her visit to Sydney to see her mother. Unfortunately the sunglasses didn’t arrive in time and he got a hand written note from her when she got back saying how grateful she was for the glasses but they didn’t arrive in time but she would be wearing them from now on because the press were photographing her all the time. When she went on her visit to Thailand with Prince Charles she needed several pairs of sunglasses to go with different outfits. In particular she needed white cause it was summer in Bangkok at that time and she also needed another pair which was made out of red and white to match a dress that she was wearing. So I made these up for her and the publicity was unbelievable because she was photographed everywhere and we were on front covers of virtually every magazine in the world, of Diana wearing her Oliver Goldsmith glasses.
Unfortunately at that time we weren’t allowed to actually mention to the press that we were making the glasses for her, but Jean Rook, who was the fashion editor at the Daily Express and a very close friend of my fathers said this is absolutely ridiculous, I’m going to speak to the palace and get permission to put into the paper that Oliver Goldsmith makes the glasses for Princess Diana, and she did and that was wonderful publicity for us.
The company is over 80 years old, obviously starting from 1926, I’m third generation. I’m very pleased to say that my niece, my late brother’s daughter, has come into the business to run the sunglass division…so now we have a fourth generation, which is very pleasing for me because retro’s very fashionable at the moment, all my designs of the 60s, 70s and 80s are being reproduced and sold now, so it’s very satisfying for me. Also we have potentially a fifth generation in waiting because I had a grandson, my fifth grandson was born three weeks ago and his name is M. Oliver Goldsmith, so that makes me very proud too and hopefully he will come into the business.