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Collecting: Eye style - The history

From faltering beginnings to the retro Jackie Os of the Eighties, glasses have reflected fashion. A new Italian museum charts their design and history. James Pretlove reports
THE KING may be dead but his sunglasses live on, which is why a number of Elvis's more committed fans have this year made the pilgrimage to Padova in northern Italy. They bypass the splendours of Giotto's Cappella dei Scrovegni and head out of the picturesque walled city towards the industrial zone. There they stop at the headquarters of Safilo, one of the world's largest manufacturers of eyewear. Only the coffee table in the otherwise corporate-style lobby - shaped like a pair of Fifties specs - gives away what lies ahead; to the left of the table is the Galleria Guglielmo Tabacchi.

Named after the company's founder, and assembled by his son Vittorio, the gallery contains a very personal collection which brings together both the history of Safilo and the wider history of its product. And there, just inside the entrance, is what brings in the dedicated Presleyites - three pairs of Elvis specs, every bit as overblown as you might expect. They are not just monogrammed "EP" across the bridge, but also bear the letters "TCB" followed by a lightning flash - a graphic contraction of one of Presley's favourite sayings: "take care of business in a flash".

A large part of the collection records just how the Tabacchis have taken care of business, although as the exhibition proves, it has taken a little longer than a flash. It includes the deed of purchase of the first factory, in 1883, but focuses mainly on the frames, demonstrating the influences of fashion on the industry. From the vast 1940s frames, to the ultra-slim styles of the Sixties, the graduated lenses of the Seventies and the retro "Jackie O" styles of the Eighties, spectacles have been dedicated followers of fashion.

Among the most interesting pieces are some Pucci frames from 1968. Apart from being quite beautiful and instantly recognisable, these were significant for the company because they used a new technique in which a lightweight cloth of Count Emilio Pucci's psychedelic designs was incorporated into the plastic of the frames. But they also represent Safilo's first association with a designer company - something which now forms a core part of the business. Safilo manufactures frames under 11 different licences for designer companies: if you wear glasses bearing the insignia of Gucci, Ralph Lauren, Valentino or Christian Dior, for example, you're really wearing Safilo.

To the visiting outsider, however, the really fascinating part of the collection isn't comprised of what Safilo has made but its optical industry lineage, or what Tabacchi calls "small fragments of history". Starting with a pair of hat spectacles which date from 1500, the development of the optical world is all here. Four hundred and ninety-seven years ago, nobody had thought to attach the frames to the head via the ears, but instead used a giant clip to secure them to the top of the head. Later came lorgnettes (the type of glasses you held), then pince-nez (the type that held you) and finally Japanese spectacles which looped around the ear. Sometime in the 18th century, the London optician Scarlett really managed to crack it with the introduction of temples (arms which extended to the ears).

But it is with the collection of oddities that Tabacchi has obviously got carried away. Take the 18th-century gondola glasses - a slightly prismatic, magnifying glass-sized disc to be used when travelling by gondola to reduce excess direct or reflected light from the water. It was later that century that the Japanese produced one of the world's first pair of sunglasses, complete with dark quartz 1970s-size lenses, a full 7cm in diameter. They weren't developed to ward off the sun, however, but to enable the people to look at the human incarnation of it: the Emperor. Better still are the French Lunettes de la Jalousie, a late 18th-century pair of opera glasses containing a concealed hole on one side and in it a 45 degree mirror, allowing the user to appear to be watching the performance on the stage when they were really spying on the goings-on in the box next door.

The accumulation of this historic collection has occupied much of Vittorio Tabacchi's spare time. "I started when I was young and always had this idea of collecting spectacles because I grew up knowing that they were my future. I now have about 5,000 pieces - I can only display about 10 to 12 per cent of the collection here."

As Vittorio can attest, buying antique and second-hand optical bits and pieces is a collector's dream - they are available at all prices, can be worn or stored away and are not yet so popular as to be too hard to get hold of. Sotheby's collectors department reckons to have two auctions a year featuring spectacles. They often feature in the twice-yearly sale of scientific equipment and can sometimes be found in the annual rock and roll memorabilia sales.

This February, though, Sotheby's is auctioning the collection of the late Stuart Edon-Allen, who died with a collection of 300 frames. Catherine Southon, who is handling the sale, inadvertently explains the charm of these items. "The nicest thing about them is handling the cases they come in. We've been playing around with them for ages," she says. One of the lots, a collection of English eyewear from various dates, demonstrates what good value they can be. There are five pairs in the lot which includes a pair with oval white lenses in a tortoiseshell covered case, engraved with the name Arabella Pearson; silver spectacles which are enigmatically stamped Pebbles in a tortoiseshell case with semi-precious stones; plus three other pairs of tortoiseshell spectacles. Dating from the 1820s to the 1910s, all five carry an estimate of pounds 400 to pounds 600, ensuring that most collectors should be able to get the chance to play with them too.

Tabacchi has bought some of his collection from Sotheby's, most notably from the Elton John sale in 1988. Seventeen extreme frames sit alongside the Elvis three, making them seem modest as a nun. Elton's hand-me-downs were the most expensive purchase Tabacchi has ever made and cost him "at least pounds 30,000".

Those who don't do auctions might want to contact Tracks in Lancashire, the country's leading dealers in rock and roll memorabilia. Jason Cornthwaite explained how they got hold of a pair of John Lennon's glasses: "We were contracted by the people who used to do Lennon's haulage. When he went off to the States he left loads of things in storage and later said to the company 'I don't need them any more.'" Sold with a statement of their provenance, they could be expected to fetch between pounds 2,700 and pounds 4,000, according to Miller's Collectables Price Guide. There is a large market for celebrity spectacles, and Miller's guide offers an interesting vision on the various degrees of fame. Bono's frames come in at around pounds 1,000 to pounds 1,200; Buddy Holly's at pounds 900 to pounds 1,100. It also lists prices you might expect to pay for other optical equipment, starting with Victorian glass eyes at pounds 10 to pounds 15 each, blue Sixties eye baths at pounds 10 to pounds 12 each, and ivory opera glasses at pounds 75 to pounds 95.

But Tabacchi, who is continually on the lookout for pieces, doesn't always head for auction houses or other experts to increase his collection. "I get them anywhere. They have come from places in the street or from small markets, from friends or from other collectors who let me know when they hear that things are available. Recently, I was walking in the street in New York, just looking around me when I saw that a shop was moving out premises and they had thrown all the fittings away into a garbage skip. I looked and there I saw a beautiful piece of an ophthalmoscope, so I just put it in my pocket and walked away."

! Galleria Guglielmo Tabacchi is open by appointment only. Telephone 00 39 49 829 5311. Sotheby's auction of the Edon-Allen collection takes place on 25 and 26 February. Telephone 0171 493 8080 for details. Tracks, PO Box 117, Chorley, Lancs, PR7 7QZ. Telephone 01257 269 726. 'Miller's Collectables Price Guide' is published by Miller's Publications, pounds 17.99.

Hat spectacles: the oldest piece on show in Padova

A 1940s showcard, one of a selection of advertisements housed at Padova

Three pairs from the Stuart Edon-Allen collection (top) to be sold at Sotheby's next month. They form part of a mixed lot of five pairs with an estimate of pounds 400 to pounds 600; above, an original pair of Peggy Guggenheim's glasses. Safilo makes copies of these glasses for the Peggy Guggenheim shop in Venice; below (left to right), contemporary looks from the 1950s, 70s, 70s, 50s, 40s and 60s