If you are thinking of the famous image of emperor Nero of Rome watching gladiatorial fights through a magnifying emerald (taken from the jewelry of his own mother when he had her slain, no less)… well, that’s a perfect example of myth. In fact, it is rather possible that he tried using gems to counter the glare of the sun against the polished armors of the fighters, but he sure wouldn’t have benefitted of any telescopic effect, as that is an optical impossibility. Also, the story about nobility using precious stones as sunshades of sort was first told about the Chinese, around the Twelfth century. And that’s untrue as well. As a matter of fact, the Chinese sunglasses were not used for sun at all, but as part of the masks used by certain judges to interrogate suspects without giving away their facial reactions.
The first real use of colored eyeglasses to protect the wearer from sun glare is documented in the Seventeenth century in Italy – in the same city where regular glasses originated, in fact. As we described in another post, the secretive glassmaking factories on the island of Murano had long been where all the optical glass in the world were made, so it’s no wonder that shades were invented there too. They were not a fashion statement, however, but a necessity for both the aristocracy who moved from palace to palace on the sun-drenched canals and the gondoliers who drove the famous Venetian gondolas around. The first record of such item describes them as gondola eyeglasses: they were green-tinted and used especially by women, hence the alternate name of vetri di dama, or ‘dames’ glasses’.