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Glass Eyes? History. Artificial Eyes Are Now Acrylic

By February 7, 2022Prosthetic Eyes
Ocularist holds a beautiful prosthetic eye in his fingers

Many people who need an artificial eye think they’re made of glass. If that’s you and you searched for ‘glass eyes’ on Google, you probably didn’t get very far. But don’t worry — it’s a common misconception.

Today, prosthetic eyes are made of acrylic, not glass. However, for hundreds of years, they did use glass eyes when someone needed a replacement. In fact, this lasted up until around the 1940s. There are several reasons why acrylic is far superior to glass for use in artificial eyes, and we’ll show you five of them a bit later.

Where did the glass eye misconception come from?

There is quite a history associated with glass eyes, and it’s pretty interesting stuff (Just want to know why acrylic is better than glass? Scroll down to see the five reasons!).

Until the middle of the 20th century, actual glass eyes were used because it was the best material they had come up with.

Researchers have found evidence of externally attached artificial eyes as far back as ancient Egypt, though these may have been created for ceremonial purposes, not cosmetic ones. Creating actual in-socket artificial eyes didn’t begin until around the 15th century, and the first ones were made of gold.

As you can imagine, the super high density of gold made these quite uncomfortable. Soon, the material of choice became glass, and a few specialists began producing glass eyes in the shape of a sphere, and advertising them to people who needed replacement eyes.

An stone statue of William Shakespeare

The fact that glass eyes caught on seems evident, because a reference to them found its way into Shakespeare’s King Lear, where the king says:

Get thee glass eyes;
And, like a scurvy politician, seem
To see the things thou dost not

We can assure you that at Northwest Eye Design, our artificial eyes are non-partisan.

And while it’s possible Shakespeare was being a bit poetic here, and really just referring to regular glasses, it’s nevertheless well known that glass eyes were in use by that time in history.

The Venetians were making glass eyes around this time, and did so for centuries using a ‘secret method.’ And there are advertisements from 1679 and 1681 in England offering custom-fitted artificial glass eyes.

Glass eyes continued to be the most commonly used material all the way up until World War 2. By that time, Germany was a primary source for manufacturing glass eyes. With the war, that wouldn’t work as a good source for Americans, so a replacement material was sought. Not long after this, acrylic was found to be a better alternative to glass, and modern ocular science was born.

5 Reasons why acrylic works best for prosthetic eyes

So why do all ocularists today use acrylic instead of glass for artificial eyes? Here are a few reasons.

1. More comfortable

Glass eyes are not able to be impression fit like an acrylic artificial eye, so the overall fit and comfort will not be as good. Acrylic eyes are created from a direct physical impression of the existing eye globe or orbital implant, so the movement, comfort and appearance are all greatly affected by this.

2. Easier to shape

One of the great things about creating prosthetic eyes is the fantastic blend of art and science represented in the final customized product. A significant part of the science is in the shaping of it. For instance, while the visible portion of the prosthesis appears round, the part that sits within the eye socket is not.

It is shaped to comfortably fit each person’s eye socket. And acrylic is much easier to shape and polish than glass. Glass eyes from history tended to just be round balls, much like the glass eyes you can still find in stuffed animals. This is actually a misnomer perpetuated by urban myths and Hollywood stereotypes. Glass eyes started out as blown glass spheres, but would be shaped into a half sphere shape like modern prosthetic eyes during the fitting process. There is no such thing as an actual glass eye that is sphere shaped, at least not one being worn by a patient. They would look more like a large, thick contact lens more than anything else.

Acrylic has thus enabled the development of several different types of prosthetic eyes. Not everyone who needs an artificial eye has an empty eye socket. Some people just have disfigured eyes, and instead of a prosthesis, they just need a scleral shell or a flush shell. These are much thinner and can be overlaid on top of an existing eye. But they are still made of acrylic, for all the same reasons as are on this list. Learn more about the various types of artificial eyes.

3. Easier to color

The science is in the shaping, but the art is in the colorization. Great care and extreme attention to detail result in a prosthesis that is colored so precisely to match the other eye, that most people cannot even tell the difference. The artistry that goes into this is staggering and beautiful.

The acrylic base is already white like the eyeball, and it provides the ideal canvas for painting the appearance of an eye.

An ocularist uses a tool with a super fine point to design the colorful and highly detailed iris of a prosthetic eye by hand

4. Stronger than glass

Glass chips and cracks much easier than acrylic, making it less durable and more prone to breakage and needing replacement. In fact, a glass eye would typically only last a year or two before breaking and ocularists would often make multiple eyes for patients, so they had spares. Acrylic can break, so you don’t want to drop it on a hard surface, but it’s very tough, so it rarely happens. And, even if it does break, a professional polish by a certified ocularist can often smooth out the problem. Glass is not so easily shaped, as mentioned earlier.

The biggest risk with acrylic is scratching, which happens most often when people don’t clean it properly. Abrasive chemicals like detergents, disinfectants, and alcohol wipes can introduce imperfections and scratches, which can irritate the eye socket. These have to be polished out to maintain comfort for the wearer. Here’s a 7-step guide to safely and effectively clean your prosthetic eye.

5. More sanitary — better for your health

Acrylic is more resistant to bacteria than glass. In fact, it takes several years of wearing a prosthesis and cleaning it properly before bacteria is able to gain any kind of a foothold that could lead to problems. Acrylic can last much longer in the anophthalmic environment providing a more sanitary material for prosthetic eyes.

The best of modern technology

Put all these reasons together, and you can see why there’s basically no debate about the supremacy of acrylic over glass. Again, every ocularist today uses it. So, you can’t go anywhere and ask about a ‘glass eye’ option. No one will have it.

If you need a prosthetic eye, you want an acrylic one. Compared to glass, they are more durable, better for your health, easier to work with and personalize to your eye socket, and they look better, too.