After fighting my way through the throng of half-term shoppers excitedly exploring Oxford’s revamped Westgate Centre, I was delighted to discover Acuitis – a new eyewear boutique and opticians’ practice. I was greeted with a glass of bubbly and a very welcoming and erudite Store Manager, Richard Berry, who availed me of his in-depth knowledge of this stylish Swiss-French optical and hearing company, established just seven years ago in Geneva. I divulged my research interests, explaining that, as well as being a glasses-wearer, I am a glasses-enthusiast and glasses-researcher. On hearing this, Richard ushered me over to Acuitis’ ‘Les Cultissimes’ range, a collection of frames based on historical designs and the glasses of various literary, cinematic, musical, scientific, comedic, and humanitarian icons, including Samuel Beckett, Brigitte Bardot, John Lennon, Albert Einstein, Groucho Marx, and the Dalai Lama. Pride of place in this collection went to a stunning pair of gold-coloured pince-nez (pictured on the right). I was forced to cut our conversation short as I was obliged to return to the office to continue with my working day – I vowed to return soon in order to peruse the collection further.
A few days later I returned to Acuitis and was, once again, warmly greeted by the staff. I asked how business was going and was told that all was well – customers were plentiful and enthusiastic, and sales were good. However, the prized pair of golden Pince-Nez were gone, suspected stolen! What a great shame. But missing and misplaced Pince-Nez (particularly the golden variety) are not uncommon, as they were designed to be easily whipped off and put in one’s pocket in order to present a glasses-free face to a potential love interest or other person-of-interest who would benefit from being unaware of one’s optical defects. In fiction, Pince-Nez regularly fall into the wrong hands – particularly the hands of the deceased it would seem. I am aware of two detective tales (there are probably more) which place a pair of Pince-Nez at the centre of the action: Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes short story, ‘The Adventure of the Golden Pince-Nez’ (1904) and Dorothy L. Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey novel, Whose Body? (1923).
In ‘The Adventure of the Golden Pince-Nez’, the eponymous article of eyewear is the sole piece of evidence in a murder case. Holmes arrives at the crime scene to discover a dead body clasping in his hand the golden pince-nez which, as it transpires, belong to his assailant. From a close examination of the glasses, he is able to ascertain the wearer’s gender, facial features, class, posture, and the fact that she visited an optician twice in recent months. As Holmes states, ‘“it would be difficult to name any articles which afford a finer field for inference than a pair of glasses”’. Conan Doyle was, himself, well acquainted with eyewear and eyecare; he was a trained – and, briefly, a practising – ophthalmologist. You can read more about his medical and optical career in this piece by Dr James Ravin, an eyecare professional and Conan Doyle historian.
In Whose Body?, a corpse is found in a bath tub: ‘On the dead face the handsome pair of gold pince-nez mocked death with grotesque elegance’. The glasses cause confusion as they are at odds with the dead man’s physical attributes: ‘here’s a man wears expensive gold-rimmed pince-nez and has had them long enough to be mended twice. Yet his teeth are not merely discoloured, but badly decayed and look as if he’d never cleaned them in his life’. Contrary to the Holmes story, in this Lord Peter Wimsey mystery, the pince-nez turn out to be a red herring; they were misplaced, by their innocent owner, on a train (probably after engaging in the dangerous pursuit of reading) and then planted on the dead body by their finder.
If you are planning on selling, wearing, or otherwise acquiring or using a pair of pince-nez glasses, I suggest you watch your back (and your front) so as not to end up embroiled in some form of criminal activity.