Oliver Goldsmith Spectacles by Nancy N. Schiffer
I first became aware of Oliver Goldsmith spectacles in the early 1990s through a fashion exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. The spectacles were installed in a small case in the corner of the space to compliment a display of England's influence on high fashion couture. But I made a note of it. By the late 1990s, my interest in spectacles led me to contact Oliver Goldsmith, as I was working on a broad retrospective of spectacle styles. In that work, I could use historic and contemporary pieces to illustrate my story line.
In 1919, Philip Oliver Goldsmith, at the age 30, was a commercial traveller for a well-known London optical firm, Raphaels Ltd. He drove a stocked panel van as a mobile showroom. In those days there were few opticians, as we know them today, if you had bad eyesight you went to the jeweller who stocked frames and lenses.
Philip Goldsmith sold the jewellers a test card and a set of lenses, showed them how to conduct simple tests, and left them to do the best they could. It wasn't the precision testing available today, but it helped.
Sensing his employee's desire to be his own boss, Mr. Raphael gave Philip some good advice. He said that if ever he did set up on his own, he should drop the "Philip" part of his name and call his company "Oliver Goldsmith," and no one would forget him.
After excelling at Raphaels for seven years, and feeling that he could indeed do better on his own, he started the firm P. Oliver Goldsmith in 1926 on the top floor of a building on Poland Street in the heart of London.
He liked the more expensive, better quality side of the optical market and
gathered together a small band of experts to make real tortoiseshell spectacle frames by hand. They cost four guineas a pair, a lot of money at the time.
Oliver Goldsmith was an innovator. He liked to be the first with new ideas and at first he used both real and imitation tortoise shell in different colours.
There was not much of a choice of spectacles frames in the 1920s. They were either handmade of real tortoiseshell and very expensive or made of cheap plastic imitation. Both types were extremely brittle. Furthermore, the blotchy colouring of the imitation tortoiseshell, which most people wore, was not flattering to their appearance.
Perceiving that the public would welcome an alternative, Oliver Goldsmith went to a plastics manufacturer and asked him to develop a synthetic material, which could blend with the skin. After months of hard work, the company's chemists came up with a flesh coloured material and Goldsmith called it "Dawn," as it heralded a new era in the concept of spectacle frame colouring.
The public welcomed the revolutionary idea and the first steps were taking towards the fashion accessory spectacles of today.
The other problem with frames in the 1920s was that the hinges protruded at the side, spoiling a clean design. Oliver Goldsmith helped design a new type of metal joint, which he called "The Prince," that was contained on the inside of the frame to give a much neater look.
With the success of the "Dawn" material, which was used all over he world, Oliver Goldsmith saw the potential for more brightly coloured frames. Suitable materials were not available, but plastics ideal for the optical industry were being used for making buttons.
A range of brilliantly hued plastics were bought from a button material
manufacturer, and the "Chelsea Art" spectacles line was designed. Bright greens, red, mauves, and blues in different finishes did not appeal to everyone in those unadventurous times, but extroverts who were not ashamed of their poor eyesight wore them with panache.
In 1930, the second generation entered the firm when 16-year-old Charles Oliver Goldsmith wanted to help his father, who was working extremely hard. Between 1939 and 1945, the company was engaged in the supply of National Health spectacles to the British armed forces. Following world peace, years of austerity continued in Britain.
Sadly, the founder, Philip Oliver Goldsmith died suddenly in 1947 at the age of 58.
Charles Oliver Goldsmith became chairman of the firm. He also was an innovator and in 1951 decided that it was time to make an impression on the fashion world with sunglasses. Early sunglasses were made with any spectacle frame an optician had been unable to sell. They were taken back by the manufacturing firms and for a few shillings were fitted with Chance's Crookes glass, the first optical sunglass. The opticians took the revamped frames back into stock and tried again to sell them. It was unheard of in the early 1950s to buy sunglasses in a department store or pharmacy, as we do today.
This practice led Charles Goldsmith to think that with a better-looking frame, the sunglasses might find a wider market. He designed some and took them to two London stores, Fortnum & Mason and Simpsons, where the new look sunspecs sold like hotcakes.
Charles continued to design and make extreme styles, which were regularly featured in magazines such as Vogue, Tatler, and Harper & Queen. Department stores bought the sunglasses and sales began to boom. Spectacle frames were also an important part of the growth of the company and their designs also included extreme styles for their day, in order to capture the attention of the public. After 1954, sunglasses became more common.
Dress designers in particular approached Charles Goldsmith to create
complimentary sunglasses to go with their summer lines. These frames were covered in bamboo, shaped like exotic butterflies, or had miniature tennis balls dangling from the sides. One couturier was not amused when the sunglasses stole the show and received more publicity than his clothes.
As fashion, music, and art became more free and everyone "did their own thing" in the 1960s, so the stigma went out of wearing spectacles. Just at this time, in 1960, the third generation, Andrew Oliver Goldsmith, entered the company. He began his career as an architectural student, but was convinced that is buildings would not stand up. So he joined his father's firm and was put "through the mill" to learn all about the mechanics of frame making before he was allowed to design them. From 1961 to 1965, Andrew acted as a sales representative for the company, promoting the sale of spectacle frames and sunglasses throughout the United Kingdom.
Only in 1966 was Andrew allowed to start designing spectacles and sunglasses to sell alongside those his father designed. It was also decided that he would be known as Oliver from now on.
During the 1960s, Oliver Goldsmith became to sunglasses what James Hunt was to motor racing and Muhammed Ali was to boxing: they were " The Greatest." Among the famous clients who wore Oliver Goldsmith eyewear were HRH Princess Margaret, Lord Snowdon, Princess Grace of Monaco, Peter Sellers, Audrey Hepburn, Nancy Sinatra, Peter Lawford, Michael Caine, Diana Dors and John Lennon, to name a few.
In the mid-1970s, Oliver Goldsmith was asked to create special spectacle frames for Michael Caine to wear in his film work. In the early 1980’s Oliver created a special sunglass for Audrey Hepburn in the film Two for the Road.
In 1977, the Oliver Goldsmith company was approached by Elida-Gibbs, a division of the Dutch giant company Unilever, as they wanted to enter the sunglass market in the U,K, to compete with Polaroid and Foster Grant. The brand was called "Goggles." Goldsmith provided all the designs and selected the factories capable of producing up to a million pairs of sunglasses a year. This project continued for four years, but ended after four disastrous summers of appalling weather.
In 1982, Oliver Goldsmith became the official supplier of sunglasses to Diana, The Princess of Wales.
In 1989, Oliver Goldsmith Company was divided into two separate businesses, with Oliver taking control of the optical frame division and his brother. Ray, taking the sunglass division. Oliver decided to license his name to two licensees (one in the UK and one in Japan).This has proved to be very successful.
Soon after the senior Mr. Goldsmith, Charles Oliver, died in 1991, his son, Oliver, was approached by the Victoria and Albert Museum to make a display of the creations that made the Oliver Goldsmith Company famous in the United Kingdom.
In 2004 Oliver Goldsmith was approached by his son Nick who was the Producer of the hit film “The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy” to design and make the special glasses for the actors.
On the passing of Ray Goldsmith in October 1997 the sunglass business went into hibernation. However in late 2004 Oliver’s niece, Claire Goldsmith (4thgeneration Goldsmith) decided to re-establish the Oliver Goldsmith Sunglass Company and launched her first Collection of Oliver’s sunglasses from the 1960’s and 1970’s. Needless to say, they have been very well received!
Today, Oliver Goldsmith spends his time on goodwill visits to Oliver Goldsmith distributors in the U.K and overseas, especially in Japan and Asia where the demand for Oliver Goldsmith is extremely high.