how to make vintage sunglasses safe for your eyes

Read my tips for protecting your peepers in vintage style. It’s what Jayne and Joan would want!

That cabinet lined with old sunglasses at the thrift shop is like a candy counter for vintage fashion lovers like me. But I wouldn’t risk wearing those $10 Jackie O frames right away — they may not offer UV protection. Eye care is serious, and I’ve learned first-hand that updating vintage frames with radiation-blocking lenses can be a serious hassle and expense. Read on for my guide to safely and affordably updating your sunnies before pool party season.

why might old sunglasses need updating?

Vintage sunglasses aren’t likely to be labeled with their UV protection, and you shouldn’t put blind faith in even the darkest lenses. You’ve heard this a million times because it’s true: “tinted lenses [with no UV protection] will relax your pupils, letting more damaging radiation hit your retina than if you were wearing no glasses at all,” says Dr. Lee R. Duffner in an interview with the New York Times. The dangers of UV radiation include photokeratitis (like a sunburn on your eyes), cataracts, and even cancer. If your glasses are an identifiable style and fairly recent, you may find manufacturing details online. If not, have an optical shop test your vintage lenses with a UV meter, often a free service. Sunglasses should block at least 98% of UVA and UVB rays.

A vintage Foster Grant pair worth preserving from The Monocle Order, Brooklyn
A vintage Foster Grant pair from the Monocle Order, Brooklyn

okay, my vintage sunglasses need uv protection. where should i go?

Servicing your shades at a vintage eyewear specialty store with its own lab is ideal. In the US, Los Angeles has the best resources. Hotel de Ville sells authentic vintage, vintage-style, and custom glasses in two LA locations reminiscent of a starlet’s dressing room (you can see my shop tour here). The optician sisters behind Society of the Spectacle in Highland Park tempt customers with cupcakes while they browse rhinestone frames. Gentlemen’s Breakfast in Echo Park focuses on historical eyewear and accessories for men (prison glasses, anyone?). In New York, The Monocle Order has a private Brooklyn showroom of specs for members only — but it’s free and easy to join. Fabulous Fanny’s, an East Village curator of vintage frames, refers customers who need new lenses to the Optical 88 lab in Chinatown.

Everyone has access to the chain retailers such as LensCrafters, but thrifter beware: they’re in the business of selling their own frames, so they may turn away your ’60s cat-eyes or charge a premium to work on them. Keep in mind that most stores (including vintage specialists) ask you to sign a disclaimer that waives your right to a refund if your frames break while in their care. One franchise I phoned, For Eyes, accepts vintage frames and offers $89 in store credit if they break your glasses.

how much will new lenses cost?

The vintage aficionados tend to be less expensive than the big box opticians. Prices vary widely but start at about $100 for nonprescription, UV-blocking plastic lenses. Polarized polycarbonate lenses, a glare-reducing upgrade most shops recommend, bump up the price at least 50%. Your frame material may impact your wallet – some labs quote higher lens prices for metal than plastic. Condition matters too, of course. Are your hinges slack? Do you need a nose pad replaced?

I’ve seen internet chatter about applying a UV-blocking coating to vintage sunglasses as a cheap alternative to new lenses. I checked with five optical shops, and each busted this myth, unfortunately. UV protection must come from the lens itself, while coatings are for adding tint and mirror.

what’s your best advice in a nutshell?

In my experience, there’s no such thing as cheap vintage sunglasses. Sure, you can pick up a thrift store bargain, but if the UV protection is lacking or suspect, those shades just aren’t worth the long-term damage they could cause. I recommend thoughtfully choosing standout vintage frames you want to wear for years; getting the lenses tested with a UV meter; calling a few shops to find the most vintage-friendly policies and best prices, if you need new lenses; and investing in lenses that block 100% of UV radiation.

Alternatively, you can purchase new sunglasses inspired by vintage classics. Your shades will still be special if you seek out house-designed, limited-edition, and handmade lines, such as the “Newmar” series by Hotel de Ville, “Blood & Tears” by the Monocle Order, and the festooned Francis Klein brand, made by a French family of artisans.

Francis Klein’s handmade, vintage-style specs are known for their embedded rhinestones, fabric, and even feathers. Society of the Spectacle in Los Angeles carries the brand.

Does your town have a fabulous spec dealer or vintage-friendly optical shop I missed? Let me know in the comments!