Through the looking glass with Vision Express

neroIt was the Roman Emperor Nero who began the journey towards using corrective lenses, known for watching gladiator games with an emerald. A millennium later Italian monks crafted glasses for reading by setting magnifying lenses into bone metal and forming a peak which could sit on the nose bridge. Craftsman had to refine their manufacturing processes to avoid making glass that had bubbles and other obstructions, but as soon as they cracked this, lenses made of glass were born. It was Johann Gutenbergs’ printing press which led to a boom in the industry, and during the 15th century everyone wanted glasses so they could read books.

As the epicentre of the manufacturing trade, Florence became the home of low cost, quality spectacles for all. By 1629, Britain had joined the emerging scene of spectacle makers in Europe. The first company that sold glasses had a distinctive brand on its coat of arms, showing three pairs of glasses coupled with the motto, “A blessing to the aged”. Soon tinted lenses also became popular. Until the end of the 18th century you rarely saw anything but round lenses, but eventually the oval shape came into fashion.

It was the legend Benjamin Franklin, Founding Father of the USA and serial inventor who pioneered bifocal lenses. Frustrated by having to switch between pairs while reading or taking in the sights on his travels, he had his own spectacles cut in two and masterfully joined one half to a second from a pair of distance lenses.

Marilyn-Monroe-wearing-eyeglassesAs the decades moved on the 1930s saw polaroid filters protecting citizens against UV rays, and before long, glasses were seen as a health product. As new aeroplanes allowed people to fly higher and further, many US Air Force pilots were reporting that the glare from the sun was giving them headaches and altitude sickness. A new kind of spectacles was introduced with green lenses that could cut out the glare without obscuring vision, and the Ray-Ban brand was born. This new anti-glare eyewear went on sale to the public in 1937. The original glasses featured a plastic frame with the now classic Aviator shape. The sunglasses were remodelled with a metal frame the following year and rebranded as the Ray-Ban Aviator.

Then came the contact lenses revolution of the 1950s, which acted as a catalyst for a need to make glasses fashionable again, seeing the style revolution of the 60s and 70s with films like the Italian job featuring film star Michael Caine and the famous David Bailey photograph of Caine in his thick framed black glasses making him a global icon. John Lennon’s famous round orange glasses are said to be worth £1million and are on permanent exhibition at the Beetles museum.

It was in 1988 that Vision Express opened their first outlet in the Metro Centre, Gateshead. The brand rocketed to success with a series of well judged business decisions throughout the last 25 years giving them over 370 stores across the UK, Jersey and Republic of Ireland and dozens more internationally.

The Birmingham Gazette recently visited Vision Express to look at two sets of frames, spectacles and sunglasses, taking a leap from casual wearer, to wearing glasses everyday. We visited the Bullring branch of Vision Express in Birmingham city centre and met with the store manager who got us booked in for an eye test as it had been 18 months since the last test we had done.

The optician looked at every detail from what situations the glasses would be used, such as reading, using a computer and driving etc through to the different types of frame that would (or in most cases with our guinea pig would not) work. As a leader in eye care, the brand has invested heavily in the latest technology such as digital retinal photography to guarantee accurate results.

Vision Express has an unparalleled commitment to both their people, and their customers, and it really shines through compared to other high street retailers. When you’re in the Birmingham store for example, it doesn’t feel like some stores where you feel like you’re just a number, there are comfy booths where a dedicated eye wear sales specialist, as well as opticians are only too happy to provide relevant practical advice and guide you through the process.

As a new customer, I found every detail of the eye test was more thorough and engaging than in other retail brands I’ve visited before. The attention to detail, and the level of customer service knowledge was spot on, and helped make us feel at ease when selecting a style.

The Spectacles

To begin with, I knew the frames I wanted needed to have a solid structure. Previously I’d usually chosen frameless models but that had just become a little bit boring. It is impressive to see the creative directors invited Heston Blumenthal to become a part of the Vision Express story. Any business who is happy to get the world’s no.1 restaurant owner, someone with more attention to detail than the strictest changing of the guard soldiers at Buckingham Palace to scrutinise their products and get stuck in with every little nanometre of the design of a range of glasses deserves some serious credit. And it’s clear from watching talks that Heston has done at Vision Express events that he is passionate about leading the design process. Heston himself is serious about getting every new style perfect, even to the last millimetre. This has been a huge selling point for the company, becoming the retailer’s most successful product launch in history, and the range is continually evolving.

For me however, this range of glasses is perhaps too distinctive, and I wanted to get something that was a little bit more subtle. Something timeless that had a classic design. This led me to seek out a number of different frames that had a sleek look and feel with a black frame. The problem I sometimes find when I look at myself in the mirror of an optical
store is that I’m always aware of my surroundings. It’s not as though you’re in the comfort of your own home and you can try on lots of pairs with different outfits to see which work best. For me personally, I’ve never been a big fan of the ‘try on’ function on websites because I just don’t feel that it gives a realistic picture. Having said that, it definitely can help to do a bit of that before your visit.

The next hurdle I found was that lots of frames had curves / angles in the wrong place and for me, if the curve is slightly wrong, the glasses can look a little bit feminine. The last thing you want if you are a male glasses wearer is for the frames to change your image in a gender specific way.  These insecurities are common for most men and women at some stage in the
process, but psychological research suggests most of us conceal our true feelings and keep them to ourselves.

Emporio armaniAfter deliberating between several pairs including such Prada, Bench and D&G black framed spectacles

But speaking honestly, the curve of the corners is very important to give the glasses the right look, but with straight lines around the eye shape and not too much of a straight top edge, nor a dip between the two lens frames.I finally found a pair that I was most comfortable with, Emporio Armani.

The glasses arrived within a week of the order being placed and the lenses had the exciting addition of BlueControl, a special (relatively new) coating that neutralises the blue light emitted by digital screens, preventing eye fatigue and eye strain. This keeps the eyes in better condition whilst offering more comfortable and relaxed vision and a more natural colour

The more you know about your eyes, the easier it is to make sure they stay healthy and fit for life. Regular eye tests are an essential part of a healthy lifestyle for your eyes, but Vision Express aims to give their customers even more. By providing information on eye fitness, eye safety, how to look after your eyes when travelling, common eye conditions and information on how the eye works, they had given me all the facts I needed to protect my eyes and keep them in tip top condition.

The Sunglasses

With astigmatism, it isn’t recommended to purchase frames with too much of a curve, so it’s very important if you’re considering modern fashion shades. It’s also crucial to ensure that the fit of the frames is just right, as some have smaller lenses for fashion, but for people like me with sensitive eyes, the more light you can block out from hitting the cornea the better,
so a larger lens works best.

For variety, I didn’t want to go down the route of just copying the spectacles but adding a darker lens, but at the same time understood the balance of styles enough to know it had to be a pair that complimented the spectacles. Throughout its seven-and-a-half decades, Ray-Ban has been instrumental in pushing boundaries in music and the arts, forging the rise
of celebrity culture, and creating the power of the rock and movie stars to influence fashion. From James Dean to Audrey Hepburn to Michael Jackson, Ray-Ban has proven indispensable for cultural icons who don’t want to be seen – but definitely want to be noticed.

For me Ray-Ban were the most suitable choice. I wanted something a little understated but still classic, and enough visual vibrancy that I would want to wear them regularly. In the end I chose some original Ray Ban Tortoise Shell sunglasses. These were subtle, well designed frames with a fade from dark to light on the lens for extra style. To avoid the common issue some sunglasses have with the bridge slipping down the nose, these had a hidden, more narrow bridge behind the wider facia that has a more design favourable, but less practical shape. They are comfortable to wear on the whole, however I would say be careful because the edges of the concealed nose bridge sometimes feel sharp and you can catch the edge on the sides of your nose if you’re not careful which could scratch. Not a fault of the glasses, but one of the realities of being a glasses wearer, sometimes your nose does get a bit raw after wearing your glasses all day long, so it’s even more important you test this out.

Learning how to wear the glasses is one part of the process, but Vision Express ensured the fitting process was done to a highly professional standard, meaning the glasses fit perfectly, and haven’t need further adjustments. A common misconception is that you should wear your sunglasses when the sun is visible in the sky, during the months of summer. Both instances are true, but not at all definitive. In fact, the sun is so powerful that even with a 100% overcast sky, UV rays still penetrate through potentially causing damage to your eyes. You should also try to wear your sunglasses when driving during the day, especially in some winter months when a mix of low lying sun can cause glare. An anti-reflective coating allows for clearer
vision by reducing reflections, allowing 99.8% of the light through the lens and ensuring distractions to your vision are minimal. Your glasses’ appearance is also improved, as others can see your eyes rather than reflections of light.

Overall, the experience at Vision Express was fantastic, and probably just the first of many interactions we have with the brand. For them, it is business as usual, and not just about a one off fitting and eye test where you’re in and out as quickly as possible, but instead showcasing that the brand is one of the most cutting edge in providing expertise and advice for all your eyecare needs, where the staff are only too happy to help you whatever your individual circumstances.

For more information, or to book an appointment go online