The Eyes Have It

By staff September 1, 2002

If you think that cutting-edge surgical procedures and featherweight contact lenses are pushing eyeglasses the way of the dinosaur, think again. The National Eye Institute (NEI), a division of the National Institutes of Health, says that far from retreating into the graveyard of historical medical instruments, glasses are staging a cultural coup, thanks to celebrity acceptance and technological advances.

The NEI says nearsightedness and farsightedness are still the most common reasons people need glasses, along with astigmatism (uneven focus) and presbyopia (age-related difficulty with near focus). But even with the proliferation of LASIK and disposable contacts, more than 150 million Americans still use corrective eyewear. Last year alone, they spent more than $15 million on it, fueling an optical industry worth more than $30 billion.

Today, a range of eclectic styles, shapes and colors has pushed eyeglasses into that rarefied stratosphere of status symbol for young professionals and hip retirees who want to see more clearly while emulating their media heroes. The unlikely result is that men are indeed making passes at girls who wear glasses (and vice versa), especially when the glasses are on their favorite television, movie or sports figures.

Consider the popularity of writer and actress Tina Fey, who hosts the "Weekend Update" segment of TV's "Saturday Night Live." In an article that appeared in the New York Observer, Jason Gay writes that her "thick, Williamsburg-issue glasses.give her a mysteriously comely look that may be described as Winona Ryder meets Velma from 'Scooby-Doo.'" Fan sites have popped up all over the Internet praising the new four-eyed star, and when Fey once emerged onstage in her contacts (Gay says the glasses are a stage prop), Internet fans admonished her to put the glasses back on.

Then there's MSNBC's Ashleigh Banfield, a television journalist who has become a media star as much for her librarian-issue eyewear as for her propensity to show up in every hot spot on the globe.

But if women like these two are leading the charge in attention-getting opticals, men are close behind. Not only does former Sarasota resident Doug Williams own a plethora of glasses, he says he never travels with fewer than six pairs of them. The 49-year-old novelist and screenwriter views them as accessories for the rest of his wardrobe, choosing one pair for suits, another for the theater, and still others for sporting events. "Someone once called glasses 'face jewelry,'" he says. "And I think there's a certain truth to that."

Williams' desire to accessorize his life with fabulous eyeglasses is evidence of a buying trend that has bolstered eyewear retail sales throughout the country and led to the growth of upscale "optical boutiques" like Sarasota's IOPTICS Eyewear, Etc. When owner Sharon Katzman first opened IOPTICS in the artsy SoMa district four years ago, she says she wasn't sure how Sarasota would handle her concept of high-end eyewear and assorted accessories. "We've been embraced far better than we ever anticipated," she says.

Katzman says the movement toward high-end optical boutiques has been growing for the past 15 years in large metropolitan areas, but has been successful in Sarasota because of our special brand of clients-young professionals and retirees who are "well-traveled, into technology, and much more fashion-forward," says Katzman, who served as an optical representative for 10 years before opening her own store.

Williams, who now lives in Texas, is a typical client. He says that whenever he's in town to visit relatives, he always stops into IOPTICS to check out the latest fashions. Although he has an astigmatism and is nearsighted, he has no desire to try new laser surgeries to correct his vision. "Even if I wasn't terrified of a laser beam cutting across my eye, I still wouldn't do it," he says. "I just love to wear glasses that look good."

Dr. Robert Kantor, of the Kantor Eye Institute in Sarasota, says the number of people who can benefit from LASIK surgery has actually increased (including patients with astigmatisms like Williams), but those who choose it still clamor for stylish sunglasses. He adds that prescription eyeglasses will always have a place for patients with lupus, most cases of rheumatoid arthritis and other autoimmune diseases, as well as pregnant women or lactating mothers-people for whom LASIK is off-limits.

They also remain a necessity for people who are allergic to the chemicals used to clean contacts or lack the motivation to adhere to the required daily care regimen. Pam Jellison, an optician at Eyewear Artistry in Venice, advises all her clients to keep a back-up pair of prescription glasses in case they develop an eye infection and can't wear their contacts.

Whether you need to wear glasses or just want to make a fashion statement, an array of new materials is broadening your choices and making them more stylish than ever. Plus, super-strong alloys are rendering frames nearly indestructible. That's a good thing, because up until the last several years, frames have been the bane of eyeglass wearers. One ophthalmologist, in a history text of eyewear, declared them "one of technology's best examples of poor engineering design." He wrote that they depend "far too much on the nose, which varies in size, shape and firmness, and upon the ears, which vary in symmetry." Neither would be a problem if the frames themselves weren't so heavy that they slid down the nose, or so brittle that they'd shatter when they hit the floor.

And that's where science has flourished. "The most incredible innovation is the lightness," says Katzman. New titanium frames are light enough that today's chi-chi (if klunky-looking) thick frames weigh as little as 2.5 grams, half what they weighed five years ago. Katzman says titanium can be expensive, but its durability and strength makes it worth the cost. "It also balances beautifully on the face."

Jellison says titanium comprises 90 percent of her business. "Not only does it not pit or corrode in the Florida weather," she says, "but most manufacturers offer a two- or three-year warranty."

If you can't afford titanium, think about beryllium, a steel-gray metal that's also light, tough, flexible and resists corrosion; or ticral, a relatively new alloy that can be cut even thicker than titanium.

Flexon is a titanium-based alloy with nickel that has gained popularity in glasses for its ability to bend back into shape if you sit on them. It's also very lightweight and hypoallergenic. "Those are great," says Katzman. "You can take the temples and twirl them around. They're virtually indestructible."

Katzman says another hot trend is magnesium. It's extremely lightweight, but because of its strength, also very difficult to manipulate for temple adjustments.

All of these materials are available at most optical outlets and can be custom designed in whatever shape or color you desire. With all this selection, one pair of glasses is seldom enough anymore. "A lot of people buy two or more pairs at a time," says Katzman. "Men, especially, are starting to realize that one pair of glasses doesn't have to last 10 years." Hardly an inexpensive proposition when you consider that one pair of these technological miracles can run between $250 to $450. And that's just for the frames.

Modern lenses can push that figure even higher, due to innovations that have increased clarity and peripheral vision. Enigma lenses, by a company called SOLA Optical, are one example. Enigma's highly curved lens follows the natural curvature of the eye, creating a field of vision as much as 40 percent wider than that in traditional lenses.

Special coatings also raise costs. Savannah Singeltary, an optician at IOPTICS, says most lenses now come scratch-resistant from the factory, and anti-reflective coatings reduce glare. "Without a coating, you can lose as much as 18 percent of the light that's available to the eye, depending on the thickness of your lens," she says. "Good anti-reflective coatings allow 99 percent into the eye."

Strength is another factor. Most high-end lenses are comprised of polycarbonate, the most impact-resistant material on the market. This is the same compound used in bulletproof glass and airplane windows.

But thank something called aspheric technology for the biggest advances in today's lenses, especially bifocals and trifocals. In many older models, lenses that are too curved cause severe distortion at the edge of the lens. If a person catches sight of a doorway from the corner of their eye, for example, the door appears curved instead of straight. Steve Cherello, director of optical operations at Sarasota's Center For Sight, calls the effect "barrelling." "It's just the physical property of what happens to light when it passes through the prism on its way to the eye," he says.

Aspheric technology prevents this barreling by allowing the manufacturer and optician to control the curvature of the lens. The result is a thinner lens with a wider field of vision. Cherello says the technology has been around for 20 years, but only in the last five has it really taken off, especially with "progressive lenses," which are exploding in popularity for their ability to offer trifocal vision without the jarring effect of going directly from one lens to another. Singeltary compares sight through a progressive lens to using a zoom lens on a camera: "The transition is smooth, so there's no interruption in vision."

Along with close vision for reading, and distance for driving or watching movies, progressives are particularly good for people who use computers because they cover intermediate distances that appear too blurry in bifocal glasses. Another advantage: Progressives show no lines of demarcation, so no one can tell if you're blind as a bat.

Progressives aren't for everyone. "People wearing an executive bi- or trifocal are used to having a very large viewing area," says Cherello. "They give that up with progressives. However, we actually do have a large number of older people who adapt to them very well."

Singeltary agrees that patients had difficulty adjusting to progressives when they were first introduced, but she believes that was due to inexperienced technicians cutting the lenses to fit frames that were too small. "Technological advances over the past three years or so have created progressive lenses that no longer require larger frames to accommodate all three fields of vision."

Progressive lenses have become so popular that Singeltary rarely fills bi- or trifocal prescriptions anymore. In the four years that she's been with IOPTICS, she's had only one client who couldn't adapt to them. "Industry-wide, progressives have an adaptability rate of 98 percent," she says.

At Center for Sight it's at least 90 to 95 percent. "I firmly believe it is the lens to wear," says Cherello. He adds that any time you change somebody's prescription, there is a period of adjustment. "That's because vision doesn't take place in the eye. It takes place in the brain."

Cherello acknowledges that progressives aren't cheap. "Not everybody can wear a Ferrari," he says. But even with their high cost, Katzman advises her clients to channel the bulk of their purchase into them: "Is there a difference between a $99 lens and a $400 lens? Yes, and don't let anyone tell you different. What you see out of is far more important than what you're wearing."

She agrees that assuaging one's vanity while ensuring good vision can be expensive, but people like Williams (the guy who travels with six pairs at a time) says he'll gladly pay whatever it takes. And judging from that $30 billion optical industry, he's not alone.

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