British Eyewear Heritage

Artisan Eyewear Production in London

7th January 2014 London’s East End is abundant with history – from the Red Bull Inn (sadly demolished) mentioned in Charles Dickens’ Pickwick Papers, to George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London. Manufacturing has been well established in The East End since the mid-18th century. So it was with anticipation that Clodagh and I made our way to a 100-plus year old building that specialises in bespoke eyewear. In 1932, Algha Works began its eyewear legacy when the entrepreneurial and then owner Max Wiseman, purchased German made optical machinery and had it shipped to London. The seeds were sown for innovative, ongoing eyewear history.

Specialist crafting at Algha Works
Specialist crafting at Algha Works

“All the machines here – built in Germany in 1921 – are still functioning today – they are antique but authentic”, says Peter Viner, Managing Director of Algha Works, who accompanied Clodagh and I on our tour, along with Jason Kirk, Business Development Director. Viner continued: “When I arrived here, it was like opening the door and there was Pandora’s box. There is a tradition of British eyewear production, and I want to see this expand, rekindle and recapture the spirit of British production. We have a small group of young people who are learning from the masters, and we want to create personalised, bespoke frames.” During the 1950’s, and several decades following, Algha was one of two suppliers who made spectacles for the NHS (National Health Service). In 1975, Algha Works made 1.5 million frames. However, new Government regulations in the 1980’s changed Algha’s fortunes, and in 1988 the brand Savile Row was born, to create individual, handmade frames, made in the Algha Works factory.

Eyewear with Distinction: Norfolk by Savile Row
Eyewear with Distinction: Norfolk by Savile Row

Nowadays, the company looks excitedly towards the future, with its superb quality frames, all bespoke, crafted from fine metals. “We use rolled gold in our designs, and each frame is hand pressed, not machined. There are 143 separate operations in each Savile Row frame”, says Viner. A new direction is to create eyewear from fabulous old acetate sheets in Algha’s collection. Keeping pace with history has seen Algha Works produce frames that were worn by John Lennon – now in The Beatles Museum in Liverpool; the designs are also a favourite of Eric Clapton; and the frames were featured in the Harry Potter movies. Algha Works and their Savile Row brand are bringing new dynamics to British eyewear manufacturing. www.algha.com JG