In the 1600’s Galileo developed a design for a telescope, this design was quickly recognized as being useful for other things besides stargazing. We find advertisements as early as the 1730’s for an opera glass, which was no more than a small telescope used for indoor functions such as operas and theater performances. This is the design that has been used in those early years in the 1600’s. It was not till about 1823 that the first binocular style opera appeared. These were designed to be truly elegant.
these small binoculars offered superior craftsmanship. Many of these pairs were designed with gold, silver, or plated steel accents. Oftentimes these now antique opera glasses were more of a status symbol than an aid at the opera or theater. Other popular materials used in construction of these antique opera glasses are mother of pearl, enamel, ivory, tortoise shell, pewter, and in some cases even precious stones such as diamonds and rubies. Many pairs also feature elaborate paintings.
If you have a pair of antique opera glasses, and are trying to determine the age there are many features that can help determine this. If you see that your pair feature a center focus wheel, you will know that they were manufactured after the year 1825, this was a featured first on pairs manufactured by Lemaire. If they are binoculars, and not a single telescope you will know that they were manufactured after the year 1823 for the same reason.
There are many popular brands, among the most notable are Lemaire and Chevalier which were both manufactured in France. French pairs were considered by many as being superior in quality, as such France exported hundreds of thousands of pairs of antique opera glasses. As you examine your pair of antique opera glasses, the brand is usually displayed in one of two places. the first in around the eye cup, the branding was positioned so that every time the user used them they would see the branding. The second is on the outside of the metal adjustable tube. as you turn the metal focus wheel counter clockwise, you will see that this part of the antique opera glasses is exposed, and often times showing you their maker.
Be forewarned that you may not find branding on your pair at all, or the branding may not be indicative of the real manufacturer! Many pairs were shipped from France to England because of their superior quality, however, buying foreign goods in England was not a very popular practice. Because of this, many retailers in England as well as other countries, would remove the eye cups that bore the true brand of the pair, and replaced it with ones that were either blank, or carried the brand of the retailer.
These can truly be elegant treasures, always make sure you know exactly what you are buying before you buy. This will ensure you have the best possible experience with your “new” antique opera glasses.