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EYEGLASSES: A HISTORY IN FOCUS

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`I FIND MYSELF so oppressed by age that I can neither read nor write without those glasses they call spectacles, lately invented for the great advantage of old men when their sight grows weak."

So said a manuscript by an anonymous author from Florence in the year 1299 - but the sentiments sound familiar to anyone today over the age of 45. As early as 59 A.D., the Emperor Nero was reported to have viewed his games through an emerald lens. Probably, the artisans cutting the stone to its final form gave it a concave shape that enabled a nearsighted Nero to see better.Whatever the complete story, Nero's "eyeglass" started a fad that was widely copied by nobles of the day. The biggest problem for wearers of spectacles in 1500 was keeping them precariously balanced on the nose. It was not until the early 18th century that temples were conceived to hold them in place over the ears.

Lenses made of rock crystal were first introduced in England in 1700. These tiny lenses, called Scotch pebble or Brazilian pebble, depending on the country of origin, were more expensive than glass lenses because they were so hard and difficult to grind and polish. The harder surface, however, gave them greater longevity without accumulating scratches.

Wigs were worn in America for about a hundred years, starting in the early 1700s. They gripped the head to stay in place. To ensure greater comfort, spectacles to be worn with a wig required shorter temples that rested just in front of the ears.

These are just a few of the fascinating bits of information available in Joe Bruneni's exhaustively researched book, "Looking Back: An Illustrated History of the American Ophthalmic Industry," published last year. It is a large, attractive, coffee-table book that a reader can either browse or read all the way through with unflagging interest.

Bruneni, a widely recognized industry authority, is president of his own communications and marketing agency, Vision Consultants Inc., in Torrance, Calif. He is also a consultant with the Optical Laboratories Association, a group consisting of 380 companies spread throughout the United States.

It was the latter association thatinspired the book. To celebrate the 100th anniversary of OLA last December, the board of directors asked Bruneni to do something that had never been done before - write a history of the optical industry. Although he was not trained in history, his optical knowledge and experience served him well, and he found it an exciting project.

In the process, he became a collector of antique eyeglasses, including a variety of older frames in excellent condition. His prime piece is a genuine tortoise-shell frame originally used for close work and which rested on the end of the nose while the shorter temples tucked into the 18th-century wig.

He also likes the classic Harold Lloyd frame.

Lloyd, a prominent Hollywood actor of the '20s, used to play the part of a well-meaning, somewhat nerd-like young man who somehow managed to get the heroine in the end. He wore a shell frame employing a saddle bridge with on-line endpieces. He would order six frames at a time because he constantly lost them. Once he lost the last frame he had, holding up production of a movie until one could be specially made for him.

Bruneni is something of a local legend - in the pioneering days of contact lenses, he opened Salt Lake City's first hard contact lens manufacturing plant in 1960. It was called Vision Clear, and the retail outlet was located on Broadway between Main and State streets.

When the advent of gas permeable lenses seemed to threaten the traditional hard contact lens business in the mid-'70s, Bruneni could see the handwriting on the wall. He sold the business to his employees and moved to California.

From manufacturing and sales, he went into marketing and communications - but always with the ophthalmic industry.

"How did I end up writing a book? That certainly wasn't my training," he says. "I do a lot of writing in trade magazines. I have columns in three of the leading magazines - and I'm working on another book that will be an optician's handbook."

Bruneni also teaches at the Southern California College of Optometry. "They wanted me to teach ophthalmic optics, the study of eyeglass lenses. I never dreamed I would ever be doing anything like that."

During his 40 years in the business, Bruneni has seen enormous changes in the development of eyeglasses and lenses. From the days of selling glasses that were either single vision or bifocal, the industry has progressed to numerous different kinds of glass and plastic.

"Today, the high-index plastic lenses make the edges of the lenses look much thinner for nearsighted people. There's polycarbonate, anti-reflection coating for lenses, photochromic glass lenses that darken in the sun, photochromic plastic lenses and aspheric lenses with very complicated curves that provide better optics. Today, the industry requires an awful lot of skill and knowledge."

For his book, Bruneni researched the many changes over the years, including "the affectation lens" - the pince-nez, dating back to the 1920s. These were tiny, thinner lenses without temples that uncomfortably hugged the nose. They were worn by both Teddy Roosevelt and Franklin D. Roosevelt.

"It was the ultimate in sophistication. It was what the town banker wore. It had a fine gold chain that came down and pinned in the lapel - to keep it from falling on the pavement."

There were hundreds of patents over the years designed to prevent red marks on the nose.

"One model was called the `Achoo,' because it was guaranteed that when you sneezed, your glasses would not fly across the room. The early glasses were just two round lenses riveted together, and you had to hold them in position. As far as we know, glasses were invented in the 1200s. From that time until the 1700s, that's what they did. The Chinese started tying cords around theirs. It was pretty tricky to see what you were doing."

Bruneni found that most of the early lenses were designed for reading or close work. One of George Washington's most cherished gifts was a lorgnette, presented to him by the Marquis de Lafayette. He had to hold it next to his eyes for reading. Nearsightedness was not treated until the 1800s, and the first lens designed for astigmatism was created in 1806.

For much of the 20th century, from the '20s to the '60s, eyeglass wearers would pick out a frame from a half dozen models that everyone in the country wore. Today, notes Bruneni, people are more into style. They shop around for frames from Brooks Brothers and Ralph Lauren. ("Polo Stainless Steel Eyewear is so comfortable, so nearly weightless, as to be practically imperceptible on your face," say the Lauren ads.)

"It could even be Humphrey Bogart," says Bruneni, "who has been dead for 25 years. He still has a line of frames named after him. There is even a line of frames named for Harley Davidson. Motorcycles? I don't understand that logic."

Yet, brand names are just beginning to have an impact on the lens business. Eastman Kodak, for instance, recently licensed its name for lenses, and Bruneni thinks there will be more of that.

Twelve percent of the lenses created today are made of polycarbonate, the most impact-resistant lenses available and the lens of choice for young people and active patients. Polycarbonate lenses, available for 12 years, are high index, lightweight and can be made with ultra thin edges.

These lenses today represent 12 percent of the market, and Bruneni, who is also executive director of the Polycarbonate Lens Council, predicts it will capture 20 percent of the market by the end of the century. "For a $90 billion market, that isn't bad."

Bruneni is concerned that even though polycarbonate sales are outpacing the market for children, 56 percent of the children who wear glasses are wearing the conventional plastic. Many people still don't realize the safety and aesthetic advantages of what Bruneni calls "performance lenses." They don't know they can pay more money and get a thinner lens that understates their nearsightedness.

Between ages 40 and 45, most people find they have to either wear bifocals or half-eyes. More and more of these people are now being put into what are called progressive lenses with no lines.

Bruneni himself wears and loves them.

"I can see at any distance. Thirty years ago they didn't dream of anything like that. The transition is not a big problem. I have a correction only in my right eye. I'm nearsighted with astigmatism, so for years I wore one contact lens. When I got to be 40 years old and needed some help to read with one eye, I could see to read with my other eye. Quite often a doctor will put a contact lens in just one eye. Or he'll put a near correction in one eye and distance in the other. Then you can go another 10-15 years without having to wear bifocals. By the time I needed to wear glasses all the time, I went right into progressive lenses."

Bruneni remembers when people predicted contact lenses would eventually spell the end of eyeglasses. That was a premature prediction.

"For the last 5 years, contact lenses have plateaued out, and glasses are popular again. There is no resistance to wearing them. They're more comfortable now and more stylish. People are also paying a great deal more than they ever did before, but they feel good about it. There is no buyer's remorse."

Bruneni also doubts that radial keretotomy or laser surgery to correct nearsightedness will destroy the popularity of eyeglasses, because even those people who elect surgery will eventually need glasses for reading. Besides, many people naturally resist going under the knife.

"Surgery scares off a lot of people, and it's expensive. People just like to wear glasses."