Eye of the Beholder
More than any other accessory, a pair of frames can say so much about someone’s personality – it’s not for nothing that my romantic past consists almost entirely of bespectacled gentlemen. Even though my vision doesn’t need enhancing, I still love trying on glasses as a little form of adult dress-up. So when I first walked into Fine Arts Optical, I was in heaven. A vintage optical museum where you can wear the art home? Will they let me move in?
Amazingly, the glorious antique frames that fill Fine Arts’ cases were once considered trash. Owner Ray Ascher’s mother, Isabel, began designing and manufacturing glasses in 1930, alongside her sister, Rae Weinberg, and Weinberg’s optician husband. “They brought fashion into what had previously been a medical device,” Ray explains. This new emphasis on style, however, also meant designs were subject to cultural whims. Once a look had gone out of fashion, Ray’s mother simply threw the excess stock away – until her son intervened. “I told her, ‘Don’t throw them away!’ We had warehouses full of old frames that we saved,” he says. “Everyone said I was crazy. ‘Why would you want to save these old frames?’ And now, everywhere you go, everyone wants a vintage frame.”
When his mother passed away in 1983, Ray, a former professor of polymer science, took over her business. Today, he owns a literal mother lode: a stockpile of almost four million pairs of glasses designed by Isabel. He keeps a selection of almost 100,000 in his Rockridge office, and stores the rest in a warehouse in Munich, Germany. The sheer size of his collection can make the process of choosing which pairs to sell difficult. “We don’t even know what’s in half of those boxes,” he jokes. So he teamed up with Scott Balestreri, another scion of an optical family, to open Fine Arts. Scott’s family comes from the medical side of optics, allowing Fine Arts to not only sell frames, but also create prescription lenses to fill them in their West Oakland lab. (They’ll fill lenses for any vintage pair, even if they weren’t purchased from the shop.)
In addition to selling original frames, Ray and Scott are reproducing some of their favorite designs from the past. “Some of our biggest accounts, back in the ’80s and ’90s, were companies that would buy my stock to use as models to make frames,” says Ray, as he shows me designs that were worn by the likes of Jackie O and Buddy Holly. He plans to update them now to fit modern tastes.
The pair are also crafting new looks. They currently manufacture wood eyewear under the brand names Original Timber and Eight Below Zero, and horn frames under the name Crowbar. While they make all their frames in Italy and France at the moment, Ray and Scott are importing the equipment for wood and horn manufacturing to Valencia Street over the course of the summer, and hiring local artisans to craft them. If the venture succeeds, they’ll consider bringing over the manufacturing for acetate designs as well. In the meantime, they share their space with Anthony Marschak, who creates tabletops, benches, and chairs out of local reclaimed wood, and serves as a consultant on the line of wood frames.
The Fine Arts team’s reach isn’t limited to America. While the vast majority of modern glasses are manufactured in China, they’re typically designed for Western faces. Ironically, given the provenance of most glasses, Asian customers often have a difficult time buying them due to their tendency to have flat-nose bridges. Ray and Scott have designed a line with thicker nose areas, allowing them to rest comfortably on a flat bridge without ruining the look. Scott shows me a simple, modern black acetate pair designed for the Japanese market, which they’re having trouble keeping in stock.
As four-eyed fans peruse his mother’s designs and his recent creations, Ray shares his vision for the shop. “We don’t do anything that’s a ‘me too,’” he explains. “Everything we do is a little different. Today you could walk from New York to California, walk into 98 percent of the optical stores, and it’s the same product … you could walk into the European stores, and everything is the same as the United States. It’s just blah. We work in classics – we still make classics, but just a little differently.”
After Ray and Scott return to their clients, I get a little dress-up time in front of the mirror, trying on frame after frame from across the ages. Is my glasses aesthetic more ’50s or ’70s? Should I stick with basic black squares, or head for the outré, rhinestone-bedecked looks? There are compelling arguments in every direction, and for once I’m glad that I don’t have to pull out my credit card.
Yes, it’s nice to be able to see without assistance, and I don’t want to tempt fate by counting down the days until I get my first prescription. But when the optometrist eventually delivers a negative verdict, you can bet I won’t be taking him up on a set of contact lenses. Glasses are just too much fun.
Even if your vision doesn’t need correcting, dropping by Fine Arts Optical is a fun way to see the full range of twentieth-century eyewear – and how many museums let you try on the collection? View Isabel’s old designs on the left-hand side of the store, check out the shop’s latest creations in the back, and finish with a stroll through Anthony Marschak’s collection of wood furnishings.