Antique Magnifying Glass Styles and Collector's Tips

Updated March 25, 2021
antique magnifying glass

An antique magnifying glass is more than a functional tool that makes objects appear larger. From the elaborate Victorian repoussé designs to the sleek lines of those from the Art Deco era, each magnifying glass represents a historic treasure from years past that needs to be properly cared for and preserved. Take a look at how these unique tools gained popularity and why collectors value them today.

Reading Stones - The Earliest Magnifying Glass

Reading stones, the predecessors of the magnifying glass, were supposedly used by farsighted monks as early as the eleventh century according to the historical record. Made from polished and shaped rock crystal, beryl, or glass, reading stones were placed flat onto the text to allow the lens to magnify the text. This same concept is still used today when you use a full page or a flat sided, one line magnifier that is laid flat on top of a page. As time passed and Venetian glass blowers refined their glass making techniques, frames to hold magnifying glasses were developed, and these highly-crafted magnifying lenses were secured in them. From these early beginnings soon came the development of microscopes, telescopes, and eyeglasses.

Antique Magnifying Glass Materials

Most of the magnifying glasses that are sought after by today's collectors date from between the 18th century through to the mid-1950s. Over the course of a few centuries, the handles and casings of magnifying glasses have been made out of a variety of materials, and some examples of the most common materials used include:

  • Sterling silver
  • Brass
  • Ivory
  • Tortoise shell
  • Horn
  • Jade
  • Wood
A stack of sheets of recycled paper lying on a wooden table and an antique hand held magnifier glass

Antique Combination Magnifying Glass

Magnifying glasses that were part of a one-piece set were very popular in the early 1900s. Many of these combination lens magnifiers of the time came on stands or mounts, and some even were equipped with small pencils in a tiny compartment. Here are a few examples from various collections of these combination magnifying glasses.

  • An exquisite example of a combination magnifying glass, map measure and pencil, made in 1911 by The Goldsmiths and Silversmiths Co. of London, belonged to Lieutenant Colonel Sir Henry L. Galway, former Governor of South Australia. The engraving on the piece is dated 1913, just a few years after the glass was first manufactured.
  • Another example of a combination set from the early 20th century was crafted by the British goods manufacturer, JC Vickery Company, in 1912 and consists of a paper knife, magnifying glass, and pencil.
  • Popular in the Victorian era, this beautiful silver bookmark, magnifying glass, and pencil combination was made in 1897 by one of the renowned silver smiths of London, James Bell & Louis Wilmott.
  • Gentlemen of the early 1900s often carried a Pocket Nécessaire, which is a small kit that contained all of the necessary items a proper gentleman might need. A fine example from Sampson Mordan and Company of London is this 1937 set cast out of gold and enamel which includes a magnifying glass, watch, penknife, perpetual calendar, door key, and pencil. Yet, when it's closed, the overall measurement amounts to a miniscule three inches.
Bryce Bible with its own magnifying glass attached

Antique Jewelry Magnifying Glass

Another type of antique magnifying glasses that you might come across are those created to be worn as jewelry. Magnifying glasses often were worn by women as pendants, brooches, or on chatelaines. Since it was unlikely that 19th century women were allowed to wear spectacles in public, these portable magnifying glasses became incredibly popular during the period as a result. One such example is this set of beautiful magnifying glasses, which include a Pierre-Bex Art Deco magnifying glass necklace made from gold plated copper and trimmed with rhinestones.

Collect Antique Magnifying Glasses Yourself

Interestingly, antique magnifying glasses can be worth quite a significant amount of money due in large part to their fine craftsmanship and the cost of the materials used to manufacture them. While you can find common antique examples of magnifying glasses in antique stores or vintage shops for as little as $10, the older, more exquisitely preserved examples can cost in the thousands-of-dollars range. For example, this 19th century sterling silver and mother-of-pearl hand-held magnifying glass is listed for nearly $1,400, meanwhile this unique 19th century magnifying glass that sits within a stand is listed for about $1,250 in another auction.

Europe under magnifying-glass

Display Your Antique Magnifying Glass Collection

Whether or not you've amassed an expansive collection or have just acquired your first piece, antique magnifying glass collections should be displayed for everyone to enjoy. You can buy special display cases and tables which will hold these treasures proudly, or you can invest in another antique for your home and repurpose antique furniture to show-off your growing exhibit. Either way, remember to keep your antique magnifying glasses away from direct heat and/or sunlight as they can become a fire hazard. Thankfully, you don't need to have failing eyes to be able to put an antique magnifying glass to use.

Antique Magnifying Glass Styles and Collector's Tips