Oliver Goldsmith Interview

Fashion , 9 October 2012

Behind The Brand / Oliver (& Claire) Goldsmith

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To own something handmade is a privilege. There’s something unique and rich in character in a product that is the result of true craftsmanship. They inspire care and affection. Oliver Goldsmith knew this to be the case, and brought high-quality craftsmanship to all the frames he made. As he said in 1967: “show me something made by a machine that has the same personality and attention to detail as something handmade. What we do here is special.”

He was right. What Goldsmith did then was special, and what his great-grandchild Claire Goldsmith is doing now is still special. I sought her out to talk everything Goldsmith and found myself being ushered into a room wallpapered in newspaper cuttings of just about any icon you’d care to name all wearing Goldsmiths. The sides are littered with frame paraphernalia and Apple Macs; a hybrid of retro and modern, nostalgia and cutting edge. This is echoed throughout the room and, as we watch a video illustrating how the frames are made, I find myself thinking this meeting of old-school and modern is at the crux of the Goldsmith message. “I don’t mess with Oliver Goldsmith designs”, says Claire. Instead, she remakes the vintage frames with an eye to conserving the integrity of the originals, whilst designing her own range of frames to go alongside. It says a lot that Claire’s designs and the vintage Oliver Goldsmith frames are equally popular.

The Goldsmith story lends itself well to telling and, as Claire is regaling me with the family history, I remember Oliver Goldsmith’s assertion that their glasses are special.  The duality is again at play here – it isn’t only the quality of the glasses, but the extraordinary history which renders the specs special. It all started in 1926, when a fellow called Philip Oliver Goldsmith handmade frames from a single piece of real tortoiseshell and went looking for an investor. The name Philip was subsequently dropped as the investor didn’t like the name, and Oliver Goldsmith Eyewear was born.

The brand really took off with the next Goldsmith, who started at the tender age of 16. His natural flair for business sealed the success of OG, as he decided ‘sun specs’ would be the thing – previously if you wanted to have a pair of glasses to shield your eyes from the sun’s glare you had to take spectacles to the jeweller to have them tinted. When the first pairs were put on sale at Fortnum’s at no charge to the shop to see how they fared, the experiment paid off: they sold out instantly. In 1942 Goldsmith was the first brand to be featured in Vogue, and suddenly all the doors stood wide open. Goldsmith capitalised, giving his frames to the renowned to wear. Michael Caine wore them. Peter Sellers wore them. Kelly, Hepburn, Lennon, Dors and many, many others wore them. Goldsmith was the go-to name for luxury sunnies and considered to be the cream of the crop for years.

The story might have ended in the 80’s when the big conglomerates flooded the luxury market. Quality and craftsmanship were out, and the decade’s consumerism catapulted the likes of Gucci and Versace to the fore. Goldsmith subsequently shut in 1985. It remained shut for almost 20 years, before Claire found boxes of the iconic frames and a visitors book featuring all the celebrated stars over the years and decided to revive the brand with the original ethos – handmade, British, excellent frames and a bespoke service to rival all others.

Claire’s determination to carve out a new path for the glasses with respect to the past is evident, and she will not let the brand remain a relic of finer days. She assiduously plans forward. She wants to have Goldsmith retailing in every country. She would like to open further stores. She believes children’s sunnies could be a big deal in the coming years to protect young eyes. But if you think total domination is what Claire is after, think again. I ask her about the glasses she wears as an ambassador for Goldsmith and she told me “I only wear them 70% of the time – it would be arrogant to wear only Goldsmiths.” That may be the case, but were it me Claire, I so would.

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