Collecting vintage lorgnettes

These ornate antique glasses exude a glamour that belies their practical purpose – and they are catching the eye of a new audience, says Ruth Caven

c1810 gold, diamond, pearl and enamel lorgnette, sold for £155,470
c1810 gold, diamond, pearl and enamel lorgnette, sold for £155,470

Vintage eyewear has long been a favoured accoutrement of the fashion set, but there’s a lesser-known optical aide, the lorgnette, that’s been quietly seducing collectors and jewellery connoisseurs alike. Taken from the French word lorgner, to squint, and consisting of two lenses that fold away neatly, either one onto the other or into a brooch or pendant that doubles as a handle, the lorgnette was a practical and popular accessory from its invention c1770 until the second world war. “Early designs tend to have handles made from horn or tortoiseshell, but by the mid-19th century they were mostly metal and could be very decorative,” says Neil Handley, curator of the British Optical Association Museum at the College of Optometrists. 

Indeed, along with the canny addition of a spring-loaded mechanism in 1825 that saw the lenses pop out with the press of a button as opposed to simply folding out like a penknife, lorgnettes became even more popular and doubled as decadent pieces of jewellery. One such example is a c1900 diamond-set Cartier lorgnette that smashed its £4,000-£6,000 estimate to fetch £26,250 at Sotheby’s in 2016, while an Edwardian pendant lorgnette with platinum chain and diamonds is currently for sale through 1stdibs for £34,349.

Clockwise from top left: c1915 Cartier gold, diamond and enamel lorgnette, £17,500 from Bentley & Skinner. c1900 Patek Philippe gold lorgnette, sold for £10,000, at Sotheby’s. c1940s lorgnette with rhinestones, £200 from Specstacular
Clockwise from top left: c1915 Cartier gold, diamond and enamel lorgnette, £17,500 from Bentley & Skinner. c1900 Patek Philippe gold lorgnette, sold for £10,000, at Sotheby’s. c1940s lorgnette with rhinestones, £200 from Specstacular | Image: Bentley & Skinner. Specstacular

Retired Los Angeles optometrist Stephen Oppenheimer owns a vast antique eyewear collection, among which he counts over 1,200 lorgnettes. While he prefers to appreciate their beauty and engineering from the safety of their wall-mounted shadow boxes, his wife has been known to accessorise an outfit with a diamond-encrusted art deco design. “They’re magnificent for setting off an evening dress,” Oppenheimer says, adding that their ornate decoration was a useful way to distract from what was once considered an embarrassing ailment: short‑sightedness. 

The rarest, and most expensive, lorgnettes are those commissioned to have a watch embedded within the handle. “They are the pièces de résistance that all the collectors want,” says Handley, whose museum owns three of an estimated 50 in existence (Oppenheimer has four). Such is their rarity, a gold, enamel, diamond and pearl-set musical design commanded £155,470 at a Sotheby’s Important Watches sale in Geneva in 2010, while a c1900 gold Patek Philippe lorgnette engraved with floral motifs sold for £10,000 at Sotheby’s London in 2015. When asked why collectors are fervently seeking these idiosyncratic pieces, Oppenheimer says, “Antique lorgnettes have a beauty and art nouveau workmanship you simply don’t see today.” 

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London jeweller Bentley & Skinner currently has three lorgnettes for sale, including a c1915 gold and enamel Cartier example with diamond-encrusted flowers for £17,500, and a rare, early-20th‑century Fabergé gold and enamel design priced at £75,000. “They can look fabulous suspended on a long chain around the neck, or when brought out to read a menu,” says sales director Omar Vaja. “We sold a wonderful £17,000 art deco diamond and platinum example to a client in her 30s a few years ago. She was a former model – very glamorous; as well as commissioning a diamond and platinum chain on which to hang them, she had the lenses changed to suit her prescription.” This particular example was unbranded, much like the c1890 gold art nouveau lorgnette Bentley & Skinner recently sold for £5,250, but a name like Boucheron, Tiffany or Fabergé vastly increases the price and collectability.  

Elizabeth Fell, a London-based antiques adviser and owner of a c1910 gold-plated lorgnette with a ruby-eyed snake on the stem, was taken by its functionality as much as by its beauty. “I hated wearing my reading glasses and lorgnettes are so convenient. I tried a few to find one close to my prescription and settled on a pair from Reeman Dansie in Colchester. It’s one-of-a-kind and receives a lot of compliments.” A friend and client liked it so much she asked Day to source her one and she now owns a £300 solid-gold lorgnette from Tennants Auctioneers, in Yorkshire. 

From left: c1910s platinum and diamond lorgnette, £34,349 through 1stdibs. c1870 diamond, emerald, ruby, garnet and enamel lorgnette, £3,850 from Moira Fine Jewellery
From left: c1910s platinum and diamond lorgnette, £34,349 through 1stdibs. c1870 diamond, emerald, ruby, garnet and enamel lorgnette, £3,850 from Moira Fine Jewellery | Image: Moira Fine Jewellery

Lorgnettes’ practicality has no doubt helped secure their staying power. Specstacular, a vintage eyewear shop in east London, has sold eight lorgnettes in the past year and has 20 in stock, among them a stunning c1920s silver brooch design (£325) with baguette and round-cut diamantés and agates, and a c1940s pearlised-acetate cat’s-eye version (£200) with rhinestones. Creative director Keval Patel says while they mostly sell to women in search of a quirky, glamorous way to correct their vision, interest can come in myriad forms. “Many designers buy beautiful and unusual vintage eyewear as inspiration for future collections.”  

Antique jewellery specialist Moira Fine Jewellery, in London’s Burlington Arcade, has had several clients purchase lorgnettes for day-to-day use. Presently, it has two for sale: a stunning c1870 Austro-Hungarian enamelled design (£3,850) set with rubies, garnets, emeralds and old-cut diamonds, and a weighty 1940s 18ct gold example (£9,000) with a sapphire, diamond and ruby snake on the handle. “The very high-end lorgnettes are a niche market but can be spectacularly beautiful. We’ve had people fall in love and buy them on the spot – as jewellery, an alternative to glasses or simply objets d’art.”

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