The curious world of 17th century ocular prosthetics (that's old glass eyes to you and me)

Now - never let it be said that Scottish Antiques does not seek to both inform and entertain (well – you can say it, but it'd be a bit mean spirited I reckon, particularly in light of this piece…)

I'm not sure whether information or entertainment is to the fore with the following, and please do excuse the everso marginal departure from the straight and narrow, but having been poking about in old books, as per usual – initially in to discern the definitive instructions of how to produce high quality 17th century flint glass for your edification and delight – I came across an article which illuminated a somewhat more unusual use for glass of the same period so – without further ado – I have great pleasure in reproducing an aged discourse on a spot of do-it-yourself artisan ophthalmological handiwork…

This is taken from the writings of Mr Jean Haudicquer de Blancourt initially set out in his epic tome The Art of Glass which was first translated and made available in English in 1699, having previously been published in its original French form some years earlier; one caveat - spellings, punctuation and capitalisation are all as per the original piece - ahem:

Shewing how to Make GLASS-EYES Very Natural.

This secret is fine, and never was made publick before: The Eyes may be done so curiously, that the Nicest Examination can scarce discover them to be Artificial.

You must have a lighted Lamp, and a long hollow piece of Crystal, as thick as the middle of a Pipes Shank; the Bore must be pretty wide, and the Pipe about four Inches in length; let the Mouth-end be like that of a Trumpet, and the other widened and turned outwards the Breech; this may be done by heating one end in the Flame of your Lamp, and whilst it is hot, turn it so with a pair of Nippers.

Hold this Pipe in your left hand (having before put a little Cotten into it, about an Inch or less from the Mouth, to hinder your Breath from being too violently blown on the Work;) let it be between your two Fore-fingers and Thumb (as you’d make a Pen;) heat the Wide end in the Flame red hot, and so wind long Thread White Enamel about the grossness of a Bugle; your Threads must be red hot too, and solid, and then they'll easily joyn the Crystal Pipe; make this Serpentine Winding a Convex of such Diameter, as when blown out will answer that of the eye you would imitate
This done, keep the Work in the Flame till red hot, and so blow it out into an Orbicular Form, of a just largeness; then heating a-new the top, pinch with your Nippers a small Hole, and so turn it with the end of them round, of the bigness your Eye must be within the White, in this Hole wind pure Thread-Cyrstal as small as fine Packthread, till you fill it up, taking away the Superfluity (if any) with your Nippers; heat it in the Flame, blowing gently often; by this the Crystal will work Convexly, to give you the full shape of your Eye.

Upon this Crystal (heating it again) you must wind Crystal Thread small almost as Horse-hair, and coloured as the Eye you'd imitate; cover it once over, and as soon as the Center fills, cut off the Thread with your Nippers, that no Surplus remain: You must hold it often in the Flame, still gently blowing to keep it in a true order.

Afterwards with a piece of Black Enamel, about the thickness of a Duck-Quill, lay on the Black of the Eye; be very careful not to give any of these Threads or pieces of Enamel, too great a heat, nor apply too much of this Black, for it will spread; therefore you must proportion your Heats and Quantities very exactly, still continuing the Work in the Flame, and gently blowing as often as you’d restore it to its Shape: After this, cover the Crystalline part of the eye with some Crystal of a solid piece, about the thickness of a Goose-Quill, and so heating and blowing as before, bring it to its due Form.

Then hold the Side thereof in the Flame, and with a Thread of White Enamel, not quite so hot, you many as it were cut out the Shape of your Eye, as you'd have it, Oblique or otherwise; then border it with the said Thread, holding the Edges in the Flame, to become smooth and even.
Now if you find too much Enamel in any part of the Border, you may take it off with another Thread of the same Enamel, not altogether heated so much as that you'd diminish, which must be held in the Flame accordingly: Then proceed to Cutting or Filing, and last of all, Anneal it in a small Pan of Coals, and you have finished.

And that, really, is all there is to it – so there !

Now, I’ve read through this dozens of times and, to be honest, am really no clearer as to exactly what precisely is to be done as before I’d started – I think the finer parts of the process may have been somewhat lost during the original translation, but the basic process seems to involve creating a lattice of very thin glass threads to create the iris of the eye – note the explanatory diagram in the pictures shown below which indicates the way they must be twisted with infinite care to get the correct construction. There are some very extensive details elsewhere in the book as to how to create coloured glass threads of many subtly different shades, to make the best match of the “one good eye” that you might be trying to replicate, and what’s really caught my (admittedly rather bizarre) imagination about the whole procedure is the attention to detail that’s required in order to construct such a piece. Bear in mind that his was the latter part of the 1600’s – the effort and application needed to put one of these things together seems to be quite astonishing !

Unfortunately, we do not currently have any 17th century glass eyeballs available on our otherwise very fine and excitingly updated website at this precise moment, but I’m sure my esteemed colleagues would be delighted to try and source some should you decide that they are this autumn’s must-have collectable – it’s an ideal opportunity to test the facility of both our Membership scheme and Wish List, so sign up via the link below, and drop us an email letting us know if you’d like us to track down some antique ocular prosthetics – or, of course, anything slightly more sensible – and the good folk back at the office will get on the case, and thank me most heartily for my part in their task…

The Hoard Limited (scottishantiques.com ) © 2023 | Designed by Jarilo Design