The story of eyewear is also a history of the Western world — one of giant leaps in knowledge. The next generation of specs will let you see anything, anywhere.

In ancient Rome, the story goes, Emperor Nero held up a hollowed­-out emerald when he watched gladiators fighting because the precious lens helped correct his myopia. Two thousand years later, in the official commercial for Google Glass – a treasure of a different sort, but just as coveted – an ice­-sculptor commands, “Google photos of tiger heads”, and the snarling animals appear in the corner of his digitally enhanced vision.

Nero wanted to see what was right there in front of him; Google Glass lets you see anything, anywhere, instantly. Between these two points on the eyewear spectrum is the history of the Western world – a history of leaps in knowledge and widening perspectives on what can be achieved. “I can’t think without my glasses,” fashion designer Vivienne Westwood once remarked.

The first pair of spectacles was invented in Italy during the 13th century, though the Chinese had made sunglasses a hundred years before from smoke­-coloured quartz. Those Italian specs, fashioned by friars, clamped on the nose like a pair of scissors. You balanced them as you’d balance an egg – your head held still and tilted backwards.

It wasn’t until the 18th century that things took on a more familiar form, with round rims and bifocal lenses (think Benjamin Franklin), and green­-tint sunglasses that were worn by Venetians to protect their eyes from glare off the famous lagoon. Side arms were developed, followed by the legendary monocle that fitted into the eye socket and became shorthand for haughtiness everywhere, from the Weimar Republic to the pages of The New Yorker.

Eyewear has always been about correcting eyesight or reducing the impact of ultraviolet rays by physically altering the way we see the world. But that’s only part of the tale. Eyewear is also a symbol. It’s a point of judgment, an example of fashion that affects the core of individuality. “It’s right on your face, which is mission control for your expressive communication,” says Graz Mulcahy, who has worked with AM and Ksubi Eyewear and now runs his own label, Graz.

In the 1700s, using glass meant you were old or infirm. By the time the 20th century rolled around, meanings had multiplied. “It was a game changer when eyewear moved from functional necessity to pop culture­ inspired fashion,” explains Catherine Federici, the innovative designer of Australia­n-based ISSON. Perhaps those horn­rims meant you were Buddy Holly, pioneering a new musical style; or flaunting a monocle said you were Madonna preaching Express Yourself.

Foster Grant made sunglasses more than useful: by employing movie stars in the 1960s they made them desirable. Christian Dior associated eyewear with luxury and wealth. “It’s really not acceptable to wear nondescript frames unless you are a nondescript person – which nobody is,” says Federici.

In Australia there are companies such as Colab (“art for your face”), which each season teams up internationally recognised artists (Deanne Cheuk), designers (Geoff McFetridge) and musicians (The Presets) to produce limited­-run sunglasses in editions of 1000.

The director of Colab, Peter Smith, tells the story of one collaborator who wanted to take the lenses outside and scratch them on the road. “So many people buy worn­-out looking clothes now that this designer wanted a pair of sunglasses to match.”

Eyewear as a symbol has been revised, dilated, subverted and, in this case, scratched to suit our evolving sense of self. We now “curate” personal images. Sometimes these images become more recognisable than their designers – Cari Zalloni (of Cazal), Alain Mikli (of Mikli), or Larry Leight (of Oliver Peoples). “I bet you’ve never heard of any of them,” says Mulcahy.

But everybody knows Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen, and Dame Edna. Audrey Hepburn wears Oliver Goldsmith in the iconic film stills from Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Then there’s Bono, who cites “photophobia” (an above average sensitivity towards light) as the cause of his legendary obsession with sunglasses, though he also uses them to create a barrier between himself and the audience. In some instances, glasses are so emblematic of their wearers that they seem to radiate meaning. Contributing to the debate around gun control in America, Yoko Ono recently used Twitter to share a photograph of John Lennon’s blood­-splattered spectacles.

In one respect, then, Superman had it exactly right: if you want to influence the way people think, all that’s required is a pair of glasses. (These days Clark Kent would wear Tom Ford.) Perhaps it’s this growing awareness that has created what amounts to a golden age of design.

The materials, though refined, haven’t changed much in decades, but the popularity of eyewear has never been stronger. Since the advent of laser eye surgery, frame sales have actually increased, claims Mulcahy. Federici offers a similar assessment. “In my 26 years in the optical industry I’ve never seen this level of confidence in wearers before … Eyewear aficionados are reinventing the wheel.”

Something new is just over the horizon, too. From eyewear as a means of influencing how you’re seen, Google Glass promises to refocus on eyewear at its most elemental: a medium for seeing the world.

The core of this new technology is a small prism which sits slightly above the eyeline, displaying images or information on vocal command (and by looking up). The glasses also feature a camera, microphone and GPS device.

Though Google Glass remains in the trial stage, by 2014 it will no longer be enough to see Nero’s fighting gladiators in 20/20 vision. For a society that’s increasingly reliant on digital connectivity, this kind of “wearable computing” represents the logical next step and a looming revolution in how we interact with the world. Legal questions around privacy are already being raised. An era of cyber­ organisms is no longer the stuff of frothy science fiction.

Given its name, Google Glass features a notable lack of lenses, looking more like a headband than a traditional pair of spectacles. In Mulcahy’s view, while this might sound the death knell for physical computers, eyewear is here to stay.

“Glasses will become like pencils, watches, and cuff links,” he says. We might not need them to correct our vision any more, but they’ve become “an indispensable part of human culture”.

After all, says Mulcahy, “How many items can make you look smart?”

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