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More on JFK's American Optical Saratoga Sunglasses—and Why We Love Them

I recently posted about JFK’s love affair with American Optical Saratoga sunglasses, and promised more was to come. So here we go.

First off, it’s worth noting that the earliest versions of AO Saratogas—including Kennedy’s—were not actually marked or branded as Saratogas.

The early sunglasses were labelled American Optical on one stem and Calobar or Cosmetan or True Color on the other, and sometimes Polaroid, which were just descriptions of the lenses. Calobar was green-colored and Cosmetan was brown and True Color was a dark gray. Polaroid meant the lenses were what is known today as polarized. JFK’s preferred lenses were Polaroid; their glare-cutting qualities befitted a man of the sea.

The Saratoga name was probably added for marketing purposes sometime after the Kennedy Presidency, judging from extant American Optical catalogs. It was possibly sometime in the mid-sixties, but we can’t be sure at this late date.

Zippy ad copy and a great photo from mid-sixties AO catalog

But we can see where JFK was coming from with his liking for these shades. If the man had never worn them, we’d still have to say they are quite excellent in their own right.

These AO tortoise beauties—call them what you will—are stunningly handsome. There is a subtle marbling to them that’s quite unique.

There are at least two different variants of the vintage tortoise shell color that AO called ‘demi-amber.’ Hold them up to a modern pair of generic ‘tortoise’ frames in the proper light, and you will see the difference in an instant.

The famous JFK version is quite rich and unmistakably vibrant, with really pronounced yellow and red tones. The more muted and darker demi-amber is still nice, but not nearly as sexy as the brighter one. We’ve heard these variations referenced as demi-amber 1 and 2, but we can’t be sure of this nomenclature.

But when you see the JFK demi-amber, you know it.

At Fort Bragg in 1961

Sailing with Caroline, Fall of 1963

The Bottom Line

In our humble opinion, the slim stems of the Saratogas make them look just a bit more elegant and suitable for business wear than the modern, chunkier Wayfarers and its sundry copies.

That, and the amazing color of the old AO demi-amber, is why we wouldn't trade our pet vintage Saratogas with new polycarbonate polarized lenses (thank you, AO customer service) for a bucketful of modern Wayfarers. Nice as they are.

Speaking of Wayfarers, we're pretty sure the chunkier stems here ID these as Wayfarers

We won’t pretend to know who made the sunglasses JFK wore in this 1954 image with Jack, Jackie and sister in law Ethel… but it shows his style sense was amazingly consistent. Huffington Post recently ran this selfie that Jackiet snapped, which they found on Pinterest

One final piece of the puzzle…

By the late fifties AO had gone to a proprietary hex rivet for their glasses, to limit the wear found with regular screw-type hinges. It was a neat idea, maybe ahead of its time, but it can make it tough on those of us who want to tighten up our vintage AOs. Unless you know the hex rivets are easily tightened with a 2.5mm hex nut driver.


VCH spreads knowledge.

Photo credit for image of painting by artist Elaine de Kooning: Adolph Studley. William Walton Personal Papers. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston. Other historical photos of JFK courtesy of the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library & Museum. Photography credits: Cecil Stoughton and Robert Knudsen

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