Like few others, Oliver Goldsmith has helped turn glasses into the fashion accessory we know today. As it celebrates 90 years in existence, it remains a leading name in the eyewear industry and a symbol of British style from the second half of the 20th century
Eyewear hasn’t always been the multi-million business that it is today, nor did it always have the importance it now has as a fashion accessory. At the start of the 20th century it was still a small industry of craftsmen, the aim of which, above all else, was to solve the pressing matter facing those with poor eyesight. More than anything else, two lenses in a frame supported on the nose meant the difference between seeing straight and seeing nothing but a hindering blur.
For the most part, aesthetics were of lesser importance. The choice of frames, both in terms of materials and in terms of looks, was very limited. The premium material of the time was tortoiseshell, which few could afford. Those of more modest means were left with the only option in existence at the time of poor quality plastic. It was in this context, with the industry in its infancy, that a young man named Philip Oliver Goldsmith began working as a travelling salesman for Raphaels Ltd. – at the time one of the sector’s most important companies, based in London. His job saw him travel all around the country for seven years, giving him valuable firsthand experience of a business for which he soon started to have ideas.
In 1926, his spirit of enterprise got the better of him and he set up on his own, opening an office in Poland Street, in central London. In the years that followed, Oliver Goldsmith, the simplified name he chose to adopt, built up a reputation as a high-end optician with an innovative outlook. Tortoiseshell remained the material of choice, but Philip knew that the future lay in manmade materials. This perceptiveness led him to get in touch with a team of chemists, with whom he developed a new skin-coloured material of objectively better quality, to which he gave the very suggestive name of “dawn”. His visionary spirit found approval in the market, snapping up the innovative look and making it fashionable.
Nevertheless, not one to rest on his laurels, Philip continued on his quest for a material that would provide an alternative to the prevailing drabness and add to the very limited choice still available on the market. Interestingly, the solution would eventually come to him in plastic buttons: the acetate used combined perfectly with his intentions and, what’s more, it allowed him to add the colour he wanted. The result was the pioneering ‘Chelsea Art’, a range that would prove too ahead of its time. Indeed, few people were bold enough to wear the coloured frames, in hues that included bright green, red, blue and mauve.
In any case, then was not the time for jollity. With the second generation already on board, in the form of Philip’s son Charles Oliver Goldsmith, World War II was raging, and OG contributed to the war effort by making spectacles for the British troops. Two years after the conflict was over, Philip died at the age of 58, making way for his natural heir, who seemed to have the same verve as his father, as he would prove in 1951, when he launched the first collection of sunglasses. Already a hit on the other side of the Atlantic, where they had been produced and sold in their masses since the 1930s, in England, they were the frames that opticians couldn’t get rid of. They would be sent back to the manufacturer, where dark lenses would be added so they could be put back on sale with a different purpose.
But the fact was that there was no reason why sunglasses should only be sold at authorised outlets dealing with prescription eyeglasses. Sunglasses, which started out as a somewhat rudimentary means of protecting the eyes from bright light, worn solely by those who truly needed them, took on a new dimension, becoming something in which the initial function became less important. The post-war youth embraced them and the look was really what mattered now: glasses became an accessory, a way of highlighting your style.
Charles was quick to realise this. Taking special care when creating the frames and putting them on sale in outlets to which everyone had access and where fashion was present seemed the most logical way of reaching a wider audience, which could only grow. To this end, Charles designed his frames, endowing them with original visuals, and selling them through department stores, such as Fortnum & Mason. Immediate success beckoned.
The more eccentric they were, he soon learned, the more media coverage they were given. And so, his creations soon started to appear in magazines, such as Vogue or Tatler, among others, and OG started being invited to design glasses to go with the summer collections of London dressmakers. In 1959, the third generation entered the business: Andrew Oliver Goldsmith, a former architecture student who changed his name to Oliver on his father’s advice. As was the family habit, he started off at the bottom and it was only after he had learnt the ropes of every area of the business that he began to design the models that would definitively seal OG’s fate as the iconic British eyewear brand of the 60s.
OG would go on to become a must in Swinging London, the style and fashion centre of the world, framing the privileged eyes of many celebrities. From nobility to film stars, the list went on and on: Princess Margaret and her husband, photographer Lord Snowdon, Princess Grace of Monaco, Peter Sellers, Audrey Hepburn, Nancy Sinatra, Peter Lawford, Sophia Loren, Michael Caine and John Lennon, among many others.
In the ‘70s, OG went through a few changes, not least moving headquarters from Poland Street to Potters Bar, in Hertfordshire, while investing in larger-scale production, with a view to making the most of the brand’s reputation and facing up to the growing competition. In the ‘80s, the brand was named official eyewear supplier to Princess Diana. From 1989, OG entered a new phase, splitting into two groups: one focusing on sunglasses, given to Oliver’s brother Raymond to run, and a second group, run by Oliver himself, involved with eyeglasses, the name of which would be licensed to be used by a major distribution company, for which he would continue to design.
The family patriarch, Charles Oliver, died in 1991, with Raymond following him five years later. With no one to run the sunglasses business, this fell into a phase of hibernation, which would end in 2004, when Raymond’s daughter, Claire Goldsmith, decided to bring the brand back to life after consulting with her uncle, who made his old models available to her. These proved very popular, thanks to the revival of the decades in which the brand was at the height of its success, and were now joined by more recent proposals from Oliver’s niece.
Claire opened a shop in Notting Hill, were the collection bearing her name can now be found, alongside the legacy of the OG brand – an archive of more than 500 vintage models – and a bespoke service that revives the best of the brand’s traditions and its craftsmen. For his part, Oliver still designs spectacles through his own company, regularly launching collections, which he personally promotes, travelling all around the globe.
The Victoria and Albert Museum also has an interesting collection, containing some 70 models produced between the 1930s and 1980s, which illustrate the history of the house and at the same time the evolution of eyewear – from purely practical item to a role as fashion accessory, the importance of which is difficult to predict, even for a visionary such as the first member of the Oliver Goldsmith dynasty.