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The Art of Spectacles & Eyewear in Muslim Culture

Spectacles are one of the important inventions in the history of humanity. Since the 9th century, Muslim scientists have contributed to the development of optics, as well as designers to fashioning modern eyewear.

The art of spectacles & eyewear in Muslim culture…

The invention of medical glasses is attributed to the Muslim scholar Al-Hasan Ibn Al-Haytham, but before that the "reading stone" was used in the ninth century, which is a piece of glass divided in half that enlarges the written text when placed on it.

The “reading stone” was invented during the 9th century; it is a piece of glass cut in half, when placed on a text, it magnifies it. It is believed that Abbas ibn Firnas invented the reading stone as an early attempt to improve vision and magnify objects.

Al-Hasan Ibn Al-Haytham was a pioneer in optics, and conducted many experiments on glass, inventing glasses that helped him to read after his eyesight weakened. He came to the invention of a convex lens that showed words and shapes in a larger and clearer size.

Ibn Al-Haytham studied the structure of the eye and wrote a comprehensive work about his findings, titled Kitab Al-Manazir, or The Book of Optics. It contained a diagram of the eye & its connection to the central nervous system, an observation never been previously made.

Ibn Al-Haytham named the parts of the eye & their English translations are still used today: retina, cornea, vitreous humor & aqueous humor. Also, due to his understanding of the eye & its processes, he studied light & proposed his own theories about colors & light refraction.

After the Latin translations of Ibn al-Haytham became available in Europe in the twelfth century, optics developed there. In his treatise written between 1220 and 1235, Robert Grosseteste mentioned the use of optics to read the smallest letters at further distances.

In the 13th century, the English scholar Roger Bacon (1214-1294) wrote about how to magnify visual objects using pieces of glass spheres. Some science historians suggest Bacon extracted his knowledge from the Latin version of Ibn Al-Haytham’s book Kitab al-manazir (Optics).

In 1635, Ridhā al-'Abbasī, a Persian artist, inspired his student Mu'in al-Musawwer to paint him while he was wearing his specs. The painting is an early artwork in the Muslim world that features a pair of eyeglasses. It is in Princeton University Library in New Jersey.

One of the earliest depictions of eyeglasses in India. Miniature of artist Mir Sayyid Ali, Portrait of his father Mir Musavvir, Musee Guimet, Paris, 1565-70. In this miniature, the spectacles comprised lenses mounted on a wooden frame, with arms curling over the ears.

Another early depiction of eyeglasses in India is found in this Mughal painting from 1585. A close-up of artist at work wearing eyeglasses - Berlin Jahanghir Album.

Portrait of Behzad the painter wearing glasses, 17th century "According to Simsar, this Behzad was a contemporary of Emperor Jahangir (r.1605-27), not to be confused with the Persian master Behzad" From Freer Gallery.

Although these paintings almost certainly depict glass lenses, they offer a context for our understanding of the use of spectacles at the Mughal court. Aurangzeb carried on a Palanquin, a pair of pince-nez spectacles next to his pen case & ink pot, 18th c. British Museum.

While ordinary lenses merely function to improve sight, the Mughals also invented eyewear as aids for spiritual enlightenment—with diamonds thought to illuminate and emeralds believed to have held miraculous powers to heal and to ward off evil.

Legend has it that following the death of Shah Jahan’s wife Mumtaz Mahal, in whose honor the Taj Mahal was built, the emperor is said to have cried so many tears that he needed to cure his ailing eyes with emerald stones.

This 17th century Mughal pair of unique, bejewelled eyeglasses were up for auction at Sothebys in October 2021. With the diamond pair named the ‘Halo of Light’, and the emerald named the ‘Gate of Paradise’, the spectacles uphold the cultural confluence of science and beauty.

The frames into which these special lenses were placed are attributable to the 1890s and are decorated with rose-cut diamonds set in the pachchikam technique which resembles kundan in that it involves encasing the stones directly into gold or silver, but incorporates a European ‘open claw’ design, an aesthetic which was popularised in the eighteenth/nineteenth century.

The Mughal bejeweled spectacles were commissioned by an unknown prince and fashioned by an artist, who shaped a 200-carat diamond and a brilliant Colombian emerald, weighing at least three hundred carats, into two frames.

In January, Pharrell Williams partnered up with Tiffany & Co. for a much-awaited collaboration, creating eyewear accessories inspired by the 17th century Mughal glasses on auction at Sothebys.

More recently, Pharrell Williams is seen in his latest music video "Stay with Me" by Calvin Harris, Justin Timberlake & Halsey, released on 15 July 2022, wearing a similar pair of Mughal style specs - but this time encrusted with pearls. He also wears the Tiffany & Co. Specs.


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