The earliest lenses were made of transparent stones or glass, and since they were convex, they were only useful to farsighted people, to help with reading and close vision. Concave lenses, for nearsighted people, were not invented until the early 15th century. The earliest example of a frame holding two lenses together is dated to the late 13th century in Italy, although Marco Polo during his first voyage to China in 1271 noted people wearing spectacles.
The first eyeglasses were an object for the hand, held to check the details, raised to the eyes when required and then set back down on a surface or hung from a belt. In the attempt to transform them from objects for the hand to objects for the nose, spectacles with rigid temples were introduced by mid 17th century-which meant they finally stopped sliding off the nose. Because few people could read or owned books, and because eyeglasses were so expensive, wearing them was a symbol of wisdom and wealth, allowing a display of style and elegant gesture to be allied to clear sightedness. Eyeglasses required cases and since they were valuable possessions, the cases were often works of art elegantly decorated.
The Victoria and Albert Museum in London holds a pair of folding nose-spectacles and a case. The spectacles are of real tortoiseshell with a silver arched bridge to be worn on the nose. The beautiful painted mother-of-pearl case probably made in France, was once the property of James II King of England, who ruled from 1685 until 1688 when he abdicated, although the folding spectacles were probably made after he died in exile in Saint-Germain in 1701. Folding spectacles of this kind are mentioned in the advertisement of a French maker in 1745, described as ’in the English style’. A late 18th century letter that accompanied the spectacles, describes how the case passed by gift from James’s son, the Old Pretender, through several hands, revered as a Jacobite relic by those who favoured the Stuart claim to the English throne.