I Was Framed!

Picking out the best eyeglasses.

Face it, buying eyeglasses is an unpleasant experience. That downward spiral of agony: you, in front of a mirror, while a smiley saleswoman hands you frame after mother-loving frame, each looking worse than the previous. Or, perhaps, it’s you, alone with your reflection amid a rack of frames, unable to tell if this one looks good or if it’s the exhaustion talking.

Consider my situation: a head that’s as square as they come; eyes more close-set than I’d like; and a small face that vanishes behind most frames. Contacts aren’t an option since I can’t stand them for more than an hour or two. And I’m too nervous to go under the corrective knife just yet. Luckily, for the eyeglass-wedded like me, with a little know-how, it’s possible to find a pair that complements an imperfect mug.

After polling four-eyed experts and trolling the Web, I learned the rules for selecting the right frames; the ins and outs of the labyrinthine world of lenses, like which extras are worth the money (anti-reflective and scratch-resistant coatings are both musts); and ways to better the odds that your glasses fit properly and match your prescription.

So, on to the rules of the frame! (We’ll get to lenses in a minute.)

Bring your prescription with you. Sure, that seems like obvious advice, but a script in hand streamlines the whole spec-hunting process. Your salesperson can immediately steer you away from frames that aren’t optimal for the lenses you’ll need. For instance, if you’ve got a strong prescription, your thick lenses will look better in a smaller frame. A delicate or rimless frame can be quickly overwhelmed by a hunk of lens, too.

Choose a frame that contrasts the shape of your face, not one that mimics it. “It’s all about geometry,” says Ravane Richman, owner of Seattle’s Market Optical. The ideal face shape is an oval, he explains, and since most of us aren’t so symmetrically lucky, we look sharper in frames that help us achieve an “oval effect,” or, in blunter terms, downplay our defects.

If you’re of the round-faced persuasion, try frames with sharp angles: rectangles, trapezoids, and the like. Round glasses would accentuate your chubby cheeks. If a weak chin’s your problem, a frame that’s slightly wider along the bottom edge will give the lower portion of your face the heft your chin can’t. Rimless frames are another good option since they don’t add more “weight” up top. If your cheeks and jowl span broader than your forehead (a shape often called the “base-down triangle”), choose a frame with a dramatic top edge to draw your admirers’ eyes up. For me, all the pros suggested oval or modified cat-eye frames to soften my jaw line and separate my beady eyes. (Speaking of pros, what’s the difference between optician, optometrist, and ophthalmologist? And just what is a “frame stylist”? Click for a primer.)

Bigger isn’t better. Even today, when tiny frames are the rage, the most common mistake people make is selecting glasses that are too large for their face. “They don’t understand that the bigger the frame, the more distortion there’ll be,” says optician Lorali Downes of Seattle’s Eyes on Fremont. Silver-dollar-size glasses also catch more glare than petite ones. Baby boomers take heart: Manufactures have developed progressives, aka no-line bifocals, for your over-40 eyes that work fine in tiny frames. Other fit issues to keep in mind: Frames shouldn’t be wider than your face or rest on your cheeks; they should sit lower than the eyebrows, with your eyes centered in the lenses.

C hoose a frame that complements your coloring. You’re either a warm (yellow-based) or a cool (blue-based). Since I have brown eyes and, when left untouched, brown hair, I naturally assumed I was a warm. Wrong. A trick I learned from the Web site All About Vision is to look at your veins; if they’re more blue than green, you’re a cool and should consider frames that are black, reddish brown, slate blue, and dark tortoise. More green? You warm-bloods are better off in camel, khaki, and copper. For the outgoing warm, try fire-engine red.

The Price of Beauty
Last year, Americans shelled out $15.4 billion for eyewear, according to the nonprofit Vision Council of America. (In 1997, Consumer Reports found that the markup on glasses is huge—a $200 frame probably cost the shop a mere $70.) A thrifty consumer can find rock-bottom prices like two complete pairs for $40, but those deals often don’t include protective lens coatings, and the frames can have that long-in-the-drawer look. Typically, people spend about $150 to $400, according to shopkeepers.

On the pricier frames—in the $300 to $600 range—the lamination on the plastic tends to be better, the metals more durable, the hinges stronger (which means they’ll stay in adjustment longer), the detailing hand-done. But if you take care of your frames and don’t mind the occasional refitting at your local optician, any set of frames can last several years.

You can find some good deals on the Web. A sharp-looking Calvin Klein frame sells for about $300 at the local Hour Eyes, but has the same one for $150 (plus $15 shipping). Keep in mind that Web-purchased frames have to be fitted, which could add the cost of a visit to the optician to your final tab. One sneaky option: Buy the frames online and get your lenses at a store; then that store will fit your glasses for you (but make sure they’ll do this before you buy). As always, before you hit “purchase,” make sure there’s a money-back guarantee.

Another retailer, Eyewear Online, recommends parasitic shopping: Spend a little shoe-leather looking at shops; when you find a frame you like, make a note of the manufacturer, frame color, and the numbers on the temple arm; then plug that info into the site. But salespeople are hip to this and tend to icily discourage notetaking. Sometimes shops white-out these numbers or replace them with an internal code. Take heart: You can still get the measurements you need with a ruler and a whole lot of moxie. (This page explains how.)

Seeing Through Lens Marketing
Lenses are a complicated business, but a little info can help you separate the gimmicks from the goods. Basically, there are four types of lenses out there: glass, CR-39, high-index, and polycarbonate. All eyeglass lenses must meet federal standards; some shops require theirs to pass even higher optical hurdles.

Glass is the cheapest and has the best optics of all the lenses, but it’s heavier and, even worse, can shatter. The future’s plastic, and there are three types.

CR-39 is the standard lens used for prescriptions that aren’t too strong, plus or minus 4 and lower. (CR stands for “Columbia resin,” the material used for airplane windshields during World War II; 39 refers to the recipe number.) CRs usually cost about $30-$100 for single-vision lenses, not including coatings that can add another $50 or so the total (we’ll get to coatings in a minute). When you get into the “blind as a bat” category, higher than plus or minus 5, it’s time think about trading up to high-index lenses. (How in the world do eyeglasses work, and what do all these numbers mean? Click to find out.)

High-index lenses are made from a denser material than CRs, so they’re thinner and lighter. Not all high-index lenses are the same, though. Lenses with higher indexes of refraction (IORs) bend light more efficiently; the higher the IOR, the thinner the lenses and the steeper the price. High-index lenses cost about $50-$100 more than CRs.

Polycarbonate is the lens of choice for kids and athletes because it’s the most impact-resistant (it’s the same stuff used in bulletproof glass) and also has a high IOR. Some shops won’t sell anything but polys to kids under 10. A tip: Because the material is flexible and scratchable, scratch-resistant coating is applied at the factory. So don’t let a shop sell you the coating if you’re going with poly. You can skip the UV protective coating too, since the material has built-in ultra-violet protection. With these lightweight, slim lenses, which are priced in the same ballpark as high-indexes, you’re primarily paying for the extra durability. The downside of polys is that they have more distortion than other thin lenses. So unless you spend more time on the basketball court than in your car, go with high index.

Another term you’ll hear batted about is aspheric lenses. These are also thinner than your garden variety (called non-aspheric), but this slimming down is done by the manufacturing process rather than through the lens’s composition. Most high-indexes and polys are aspherics; and from what I can tell these lenses aren’t any more expensive than chunkier versions. Generally, CR-39s aren’t ground into aspherics, but there’s no reason they can’t be; so if you’re farsighted (no-go on things closeup) and getting CRs, ask for the aspheric lenses because they won’t magnify your eyes as much.

If you need a full-service vision correction, ask your eye doc for recommendations on good progressive lens makers, then shop by brand. With progressives—like bifocals, only with more than two powers of correction—you want what’s called “the corridor of optimum vision” to be as wide and as sharp as possible. This corridor fluctuates, sometimes dramatically, among the different manufacturers. A high-index progressive can be expensive; be prepared to spend $250 or more.

Lens prices are all over the map. At Costco, a pair of CR single-vision lenses costs about $30, while a similar one at Seattle’s 4 Your Eyes Only is $90; both non-aspheric. (Salespeople told me the pricier lenses have finer optics—my nonexistent testing budget didn’t allow such investigations—but Dr. Jeffrey Weaver of the American Optometrist Association suspects customers are basically paying for extra service.) But on average you should be able to get single-vision, high-index lenses for around $200.

Trying to compare LensCrafters’ FeatherWates to Pearle Vision’s MicroThins? Ditch the trademarked name, simply ask the optical shop which of the three—polycarbonate, CR-39, or high-index—each lens is, then comparison-shop away.

Conclusion on Coatings
The two coatings that you absolutely should invest in are scratch-resistant and anti-reflective; together they add about $50-$100 to the lens price. Keep in mind, all polys and some high-indexes come with a scratch-resistant coating from the factory, so ask your salesperson if your particular lens has them. If you’ll wear your glasses outside on sunny days, you might want to spend the extra $30 or so for UV protection, which blocks the sun’s nasty rays—linked to eye troubles such as cataracts and retinal damage. Generally, prescription sunglasses come with UV protection as a default, but check to make sure; in a bargain bin sale you never know.

Optometrist Weaver says anti-reflective solvents have gotten much better in the past few years, and the coating dramatically improves your vision by reducing glare, reflection, and halos around lights. That makes a huge difference in night driving. The doc wouldn’t own a pair of glasses without it.