Persol: For the Sun and So Much More

Close-up of Persol frames
Image credit: Howard Bouchevereau on Unsplash

Persol is among those few eyewear brands to which the label ‘iconic’ can be ascribed without hyperbole. While an average pair of sunnies are a dime a dozen, it’s rare for a label to become synonymous not merely with the idea of sunglasses, but with the concept of wearing them in style.

A bit of heritage goes a long way in this regard and Persol has it in spades. The company traces its roots back over a hundred years to the Italian city of Turin, where, in the midst of the First World War, Giuseppe Ratti was working at his family business, Berry Opticians. During the course of his work there, Ratti came into contact with pilots who patronised the establishment and shared stories of aerial battles fought at high altitudes in the blistering sun. In response, the enterprising Ratti set about experimenting with smokey lenses to help shield these airmen’s eyes from the glare. 

He eventually came up with a set of spectacles he dubbed ‘The Protector’. These were essentially a pair of goggles purpose-built with pilots in mind, featuring smoked crystal lenses, rubber-lined frames, and an elastic headband. The design proved so effective that it landed Ratti contracts with the armed forces and soon caught on beyond the military among motorcyclists and race car drivers. 

The Protector was enough of a hit that a trade name was in order. Ratti settled on Persol, a portmanteau of per il sole, an Italian phrase meaning ‘for the sun’.

Persol sunglasses ad 1946
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

In the next several decades a slew of further innovations followed, many of which would become enduring Persol signatures. In the 1920s, for instance, Ratti worked to improve his crystal lenses with the use of silica, and between the 1930s and ’50s the company developed their so-called Meflecto and Victor Flex systems. The former comprised a complex set of cylinders housed in the glasses’ stems, while the latter was a set of flexible notches focussed at the bridge. Both were built with the same goal in mind: to allow Persol glasses to adapt to the shape of any wearer’s head, all while reducing pressure and boosting comfort.

Perhaps their most famous innovation came in the 1930s in the form of the Silver Arrow. Shaped in imitation of the swords of ancient warriors, these dagger-shaped metal hinges would become the brand’s trademark. More subtle and sophisticated than a logo, the Silver Arrow serves simply but effectively to point out a pair of Persols to those in the know. 

Perhaps the best-known among this Persol cognoscenti was Steve McQueen. The American movie star has become so synonymous with Persol sunglasses that it seems impossible to talk about the brand without invoking his famous pair of 714s. These were based on the 649 series, themselves first introduced in 1957 and built to keep dust and debris out of the eyes of Turin’s tram drivers. The 714 series included a few upgrades, including a slimmer design, as well as hinges on the bridge and stems, which allowed the glasses to be folded up into a more compact form. It also made them the first-ever set of foldable shades.

After Persol expanded to American shores in 1962, McQueen got his hands on a pair of 714s with Light Havana frames with crystal blue lenses, which he happened to wear to work one day on the set of The Thomas Crown Affair. McQueen wasn’t hailed as The King of Cool for nothing, so when the filmmakers caught sight of his spiffing specs they decided to incorporate the actor’s Persols into the film’s costuming. When the movie eventually hit theatres in 1968, the rest of the world sat up and took notice too.

Persol 714 sunglasses
Steve McQueen’s signature 714 model Persol sunglasses
Image credit: Matti Airaksinen / CC BY 2.0

McQueen would go on to wear his signature sunnies in several subsequent film projects, including Bullitt, The Getaway, and Le Mans. It was enough to forever cement his connection to the brand, leading to Persol now selling several Steve McQueen-branded models. His connection to the brand has proven to be a priceless bit of free marketing, although if you did want to put a price tag on the actor’s penchant for Persol, a single pair from his old collection sold at auction for over $70 000 in 2006.

The 1960s proved a game-changing decade for the brand, during which they expanded internationally and their popularity skyrocketed. Really, it was part of a paradigm shift in the way people thought about spectacles in general and Persol was right at the heart of the change. While formerly glasses were thought of in more straightforwardly practical or medical terms, Persol was among the first makers of optical frames to shift gears into more aspirational territory. Moreover, because they started out as an eyewear brand and have remained such throughout, they boasted a sense of authenticity that many fashion brands looking to get into the sunglasses game as a cash grab weren’t able to match.

There is no question that McQueen had a hand in this shift in fortunes, although he is far from the only celeb known to have worn them. The 1960s saw a number of famous faces decorated with a pair of Persols, including actors Marcello Mastroianni and Paul Newman. More recent wearers have included footballers Alessandro Del Piero and Filippo Inzaghi, as well as Jay-Z, Leonardo di Caprio, Justin Timberlake, and Ryan Gosling, who cuts a figure not all that far from McQueen in his classic 649s.

What’s more, the cinematic connections live on. Jude Law wore some in The Talented Mr. Ripley, as did Daniel Craig in Casino Royale, Armie Hammer in Call Me By Your Name, Charlie Hunnam in The Gentlemen, and Tom Cruise in several different projects throughout his career. And, most recently, there is Robert Pattinson in the latest Batman film. Appropriately, given the historic precedent, these dark glasses adorning the Dark Knight will no doubt introduce Persol to a whole new generation of movie-goers eager to get their hands on a pair of some of the most stylish-looking specs around.

Persol sunglasses flat lay
Image credit: Robert Sheie / CC BY 2.0