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“They’re not terribly practical things unless you’re a 90-year-old lady that wants to peer at someone imperiously from your bath chair,” says Steve “Steenie” Hudson, owner of opticians the Eye Company in London’s Soho. He is speaking of lorgnettes — spectacles on the end of a handle — and he has about 100 of them in his collection of historical eyewear; he loans them to film and TV shoots.
Englishman George Adams is believed to have invented the lorgnette around 1770. They became popular in the 19th century and this continued into the 20th century, until they fell out of favour after the second world war when radical fashions emerged. Now, despite their impracticality, unusual and signed antique jewelled versions are attracting keen prices at auction.
Justin Roberts, jewellery specialist at Sotheby’s, says prices have been climbing steadily for the past six years. Lorgnettes by jewellers such as Cartier and Tiffany made in the first few decades of the 20th century are doing very well, he says, as collectors, faced with a dwindling supply of more conventional jewels from these houses from this period, look at a forgotten avenue. A lady’s Cartier diamond-set lorgnette, circa 1900, sold for £26,250 (including the buyer’s premium) at Sotheby’s in March against an estimate of £4,000-£6,000.
“[Lorgnettes] are probably an area that has been undervalued, pushed to the side a little bit . . . They actually present quite a good area to perhaps look into and collect as other more conventional pieces — your pendants, your bracelets, your earrings — are fetching considerably higher prices,” says Mr Roberts. Lorgnettes provide “the same quality of workmanship” as a conventional piece.
Not all lorgnettes are destined to remain unused in a collector’s display case, as some are concealed in a pendant on a long necklace. “They’re obviously very desirable because they can be worn as a conventional piece of jewellery but they’ve got this added interest, very carefully concealed behind,” says Mr Roberts, who believes buyers of fine lorgnettes are interested in a specific period or designer rather than historical optical aids.
American auction house Doyle sold a platinum, black onyx and diamond lorgnette pendant and chain, circa 1920, last month for $7,500 against an estimate of $4,000-$6,000.
Ann Lange, executive director of the jewellery department at Doyle, says lorgnettes from the Belle Époque, Edwardian and Art Deco eras are attracting interest for their “decorative value”. “The workmanship can be really very beautiful and a lot of times they’re done in onyx and diamonds from the Deco time and it’s a very strong design feature.”
She says the lorgnettes attracting strong prices are either signed or have a “certain rarity element” such as beautiful enamelling: Doyle sold a French gold and enamel lorgnette (above), circa 1920, for $20,000 last December, over the estimate of $2,500-$3,500.
A lorgnette from around 1900 inset with a Patek Philippe watch (main pic) went for £10,000 at Sotheby’s last December, more than triple its estimate.
The retail market is subdued by comparison. Omar Vaja, sales director at Bentley & Skinner, which stocks lorgnettes, estimates the jeweller has sold one in the past four years. He says the business used to sell “quite a lot” 20 years ago as a decorative item women might put their own lenses in, but that is no longer the case.
Geoffrey Munn, managing director of Wartski, an antiques dealer specialising in fine jewellery, only receives an inquiry about lorgnettes “every now and then”.
But he does say: “Whenever we encounter them, I always lark around and hold them to my face and pretend to be the old dowager asking the young man why he thinks he’s right to marry her daughter.”