There are few glasses firms that have truly stood the test of time and managed to create retro designer eyewear with a modern edge, which can span the decades. Yet Anglo American Optical have managed to do all of this and here at Retropeepers, we are proud to work with them and stock some of their iconic frames.
Anglo American Optical was first established as a family business back in 1882, when Stanley Druiff travelled over to America, to bring back goods to sell – including eyeglasses.
Forty years later, in 1946, Arthur Jenkin bought the company, which was now in Southfields near Wimbledon. It had been bombed out and was virtually bankrupt, so he moved it to beautiful large old building on the edge of Hampstead Heath. He had rather incredibly become the breadwinner for his family, at the tender age of 13, by repairing British and Canadian soldiers’ binoculars during World War 2, forming his own company ‘Primatic Instruments.’ This experience served him well and when the National Health Service was launched a year later in 1948, he was well placed to provide some of the free frames that people with vision problems were now entitled to. Jenkin wanted to offer the British public something new and fashionable, so he set about importing frames from Tura in Manhattan, Whitney and Gaspari. These “fashion” frames had never been available to the British public before, so he was definitely somewhat of a visionary. When Stanley returned, in around 1902, he opened an opticians and educational training service in the Hatton Garden district of London, which offered personal optometry tuition or training by correspondence. Druiff claimed it was the “oldest school of its kind in the country” and called his school the London School of Optics. One of the tutors in visual optics, Guy Druiff, wrote a key textbook on refraction and later went on to leave to form his own company: The Elliott Optical Company.
However, Arthur’s son Lawrence, who later joined the company as an optician, wasn’t content to just continue importing frames; he had aspirations to make his own. His father told him that he would have to “learn the business and someone else’s expense.” So, he qualified in both Britain and the United States and moved to New York to learn the trade. In the early 1960s, this dream became a reality when he worked with the high-end Lugene Opticians and Vision Unlimited to begin his frame making journey. He was asked by the owner what he wanted to do and how much financial backing he needed to achieve it. After telling him that he needed ten thousand pounds, he was given a cheque and told to go for it.
After three very successful years overseas, he returned to the UK and began designing his own frames. He was heavily influenced by the basic shape of the NHS frames, but he designed them in different sizes, with better quality materials and components. The frames were all designed in his father’s factory in Hampstead, where he had converted the offices into living accommodation. Ten years later, his brothers Malcolm and Tony also came on board and Lawrence began to take more of a backseat. Although the frames were all made in a factory, Lawrence designed the collections and made the first samples. They decided to call themselves Anglo American Eyewear, which referenced the times he had spent in the states and his British roots.
Although the frames were made in the UK, a large proportion of them were sold back to the USA or were exported to other countries across the globe, so it seemed natural that they would open a shop on New York’s fashionable Park Avenue. From the 1970s to the 90s, they became associated with creative, avant garde designs which were hand finished and high fashion.
Celebrity clients such as Dame Edna and Elton John rocked their designs in their most iconic looks. But they’re not the only celebs who have worn Anglo American Optical’s frames over the years. Their client base reads like a who’s who of Hollywood royalty with Gregory Peck, Diane Keaton and Woody Allen to name but a few.
In 1996, Lawrence left the company to open his own bespoke opticians and glasses making service and to train young people how to make frames, as it has become a bit of a dying art. In 2000, Tony took on the position as head of the company and more recently, his son Toby joined the team, bringing in a third generation at Anglo American Optical. Today, their glasses are still highly sought after and make an amazing style statement. They are made of lightweight acetate, which is based on cotton or tree pulp. It’s an all-natural hypoallergenic material that ensures there is very minimal chance of a reaction.
Feeling inspired? Check out the range of Anglo American Optical glasses Retropeepers' stock here