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The Incredible Lightness of Seeing

May 05, 2000|VALLI HERMAN-COHEN | TIMES SENIOR FASHION WRITER

They are like an iMac for your eyes. The latest sunglasses are little bundles of technological and design wonder, packing in everything from virtually unbreakable titanium frames to tints that mimic the body's melanin pigment. And, of course, they come in cool shapes and colors.

While this new generation of sunglasses may not look radically new, the cutting-edge shades are pricey--$150 to $300 plus--because designers are using new materials to achieve innovative, if subtle, effects. They're combining new and old technologies to make glasses that look and act differently. New wraparound lenses have deeper curves, lenses are colored with funkier tints, and frames have more plastic layers that appear to change colors, depending on the light.

Gone are the timid, tiny frames that evoked vintage 1900. Today's sunglasses are big, bold and full of personality--think Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Aristotle Onassis, Audrey Hepburn and even Elvis, whose aviator sunglasses are this season's hottest new style. Shades are now as much status symbols as a hot new handbag, cell phone or Palm Pilot.

"People want to have a great look, something that's fun, exciting and new, but they also want protection," said Bill Barton, president of the Optical Shop of Aspen, a national chain of upscale eyewear stores.

With new collections from Chanel, Prada, Helmut Lang, Chloe, Kate Spade and Romeo Gigli arriving in recent or upcoming seasons, fashion designers are adding to the hipness quotient and making sport glasses, vintage frames and clip-ons look dated.

The high-performance features that were once available only in sport glasses are now migrating to designer sunglasses. The newest fashion glasses use lens coatings that diminish glare, reflections and radiation that may harm the retina. Chanel, Prada and even Sunglasses Hut International, for example, offer lenses that use the latest technology, a synthetic melanin that blocks HEV (high-energy visible) radiation, the blue-violet portion of the spectrum that may cause long-term damage.

And that darling of the '70s, the photochromic lens that turns darker in sunlight, now comes in fashion colors of rose, blue or yellow--the chic shades for nightclubbing or daytime hangover hiding.

The most practical of the technological advances can be seen in sleeker and lighter frames (notably titanium) and thinner lenses, a costly plus that aids comfort--and vanity--for those who wear glasses. See, a new optical store in Los Angeles, is zeroing in on this niche market, offering up-to-date frames for less than $199, including tints, prescriptions and other coatings.

High-fashion purveyors such as Chanel are cleverly touting the cosmetic benefits of wearing their state-of-the-art melanin lenses. Their marketing sounds like a wrinkle-cream ad: Wear the lens and help delay the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles around the eyes. Actually, anything that prevents sunlight from reaching the skin will slow the sun's wrinkle-making ability.

Wrinkles and style aside, the most important function of sunglasses is to protect the eyes from the sun. Yet some of the technology comes with limitations.

Most high-quality sunglasses offer sufficiently dark lenses and coatings that block UV (ultraviolet) radiation, which is thought to cause cataracts and other eye diseases, some of which are treatable. Now researchers are investigating the effects of other forms of radiation, including HEV, which is thought to irreversibly damage the retina.

James Pritts, a veteran of leading optical research and development departments who helped develop melanin lenses, said the long-term effects of exposure to HEV are still being studied.

"The studies are animal in nature, experimental and also based on a hypothesis of how the light is absorbed in the retina," said Pritts, who is now president of Sunglass Solutions, a sunglass industry consulting company in Emerald Hills, Calif. "A lot of the scientific community would like to see epidemiological proof before they accept a position."

Until then, he says the evidence suggests it's prudent to limit exposure to HEV radiation.

Other technologies have tried to provide better eye protection and make wearing sunglasses simpler. In the 30 years since self-darkening, or photochromic lenses, were introduced, they haven't become a panacea.

The lenses are, however, a compromise for bright outdoor and low indoor light, said Pritts, because they don't get as crystal clear or deeply dark as regular lenses.

"If you absolutely want one pair of glasses, then self darkening is what you buy," he said. But he suggests two pairs--dark sunglasses for bright sunshine and colorless lenses for indoor low light--for those who are particular about optimal performance.

And if you're baking at the beach, your photochromic lenses might not work as well.

"The darkening effect is as much affected by temperature as by light. They actually get darker in colder temperatures," he said.

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