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Donned by pilots, race car drivers and style icons, Persol sunglasses are unquestionably cool. Few brands have withstood the test of time like Persol, which is just over a century old, earning it the right to be called a true classic. And whether it’s the Italian brand’s innovations, quality or cachet, you wouldn’t be faulted for wanting a pair for yourself.
This guide will take you through everything you need to know about the brand, from its history to terms you should know and available styles. For a more general primer on sunglasses, check out this article.
In the midst of World War I, Giuseppe Ratti was working as an optician for his family’s business, Berry Opticians. Pilots frequented the business and regaled Ratti of high-altitude bulldog fights as well as battles against the glaring sun. After experimenting with smoked lenses, Ratti introduced a glare-reducing pair of spectacles dubbed The Protector, designed specifically for pilots.
The glasses featured smoked crystal lenses, which Ratti had developed with the help of a German chemist, as well as an elastic band and rubber-lined frames. The Protector’s popularity took off, landing itself on the faces of race car drivers and motorcyclists while also securing Ratti contracts with the armed forces. Shortly after, the Persol name was born, a portmanteau of “per il sole” (for the sun).
In the 1920s, Ratti further developed its lenses, using silica to form its crystal lenses which were then tinted to a yellow-brown tint which is synonymous with the brand today.
Between the 1930s and 1950s was when Persol truly solidified itself as an innovative brand, first with the introduction of its now-iconic Meflecto technology. Using a complex system of cylinders inserted carefully into the stems, the Meflecto system allowed the glasses to adapt its shape to any wearer’s head, reducing pressure and increasing comfort. Persol expanded upon this now-patented concept by developing the Victor Flex system, which helped the bridge of the sunglasses fit any face shape using a series of flexible notches. The brand’s trademark Silver Arrow also came about during this time and distinguished Persol from imitators. The design was inspired by the swords of ancient warriors and, unfortunately, would be the springboard for Persol’s ad mascot, a stereotypical cartoon of a Chinese man. The arrow evolved and branched several iterations, of which the “Supreme Arrow” is most synonymous with the brand.
From the 1960s, Persol expanded its production to include work goggles used for various manufacturing throughout Italy and won dozens of patents along the way. It also secured contracts with NASA and grew in cultural relevance as celebrities like Steve McQueen were seen in movies and television sporting the brand. Though the brand found its way into Hollywood, it came at a time when eyewear wasn’t overly branded like many are today and it was the Silver Arrow that gave persistent fans the hint they needed. “They were the first to be an aspirational brand for jetsetters, where there wasn’t really such an eyewear brand before them,” says Jordan Silver, owner of NYC eyewear store Silver Linings Opticians. “Every other brand was looking at eyewear as ‘you should wear this as a medical device.'” But Persol took it to another level and the Silver Arrow was a callsign to say that you were a part of the cognoscenti.
“They’re authentic — or were authentic — because they weren’t a fashion brand going into eyewear,” Silver says. “They were an eyewear brand and eyewear brand only. They were what the rich dudes wanted to wear and so other people wanted to wear it because of them. They didn’t have to put a logo or a designer’s name or a fashion house on it.”
Far away from the silver screen, Persol continued to dominate the sports landscape, moving from pilots and race car drivers to world-class mountain climbers and explorers. From the top of Mt. Everest and through blistering deserts, Persol was the eyewear of choice to protect these extreme athletes in their harrowing excursions.
In 1995, eyewear conglomerate Luxottica purchased the Italian company and pushed the brand’s expansion. Though the revolutionary eyewear brand still produces its goods in Italy, some eyewear enthusiasts say that the brand isn’t what it once was. “By the late 50s and 60s, they were really that brand to be worn on a transatlantic flight,” Silver notes. “I think [in recent decades] they lost that, being at airport kiosks, not maintaining the exclusive distribution channels.”
They became who they are now through innovative products, selective distribution and quality. Longtime fans pine for Persol’s heyday, but the brand is still looked to as a pillar of style and quality today.
Meflecto: Persol’s crowning achievement, the patented Meflecto technology was created by the brand and is the world’s first flexible stem design. It allows the stems to bend according to the unique shape of the wearer, via a complex system of metal cylinders embedded into the acetate stem.
Victor Flex: The three-notch bridge technology which allows the bridge to curve and flex as needed, improving fit and comfort.
Silver Arrow: Inspired by the swords of ancient warriors, the Silver Arrow is Persol’s trademark, invented in the 1930s.
Acetate: A naturally-derived plastic formed cotton pulp. Acetate is formed into a mold and the shape of the frames is carved out from this.
Crystal: Persol’s lenses are crystal lenses which are made from glass and offer the highest clarity.
Polarized: Polarized lenses are lenses which are coated with a layer of polarizing film which cuts reflections and glares.
The 649 is Persol’s most recognized design and its most imitated. Introduced in 1957, the 649 was originally designed for Turin’s tram drivers, with large lenses to block out dust and debris. It features all of Persol’s hallmarks including the Silver Arrow, Meflecto and Victor Flex technology and is available in over a dozen different configurations. The 649 Original features an overall wider profile with thicker temples and frames while the PO9649S is a trimmed-down version with a less prominent bridge.
The 714 is a sleeker set of specs compared to the 649, with thinner rims and more slender stems. The brow line, while still contoured, is flatter than the 649 and features a bridge that’s more carved out. The most distinct difference is the fact that it has hinges at the stems as well as at the bridge which allow the glasses to fold into a compact form factor. This innovation made the 714 first-ever foldable sunglasses. The 714 reached peak cool and cemented itself in style history when Steve McQueen wore them in the iconic 1968 film The Thomas Crown Affair.
Steve McQueen Series
In homage to Mr. Cool himself, the Steve McQueen Series is an upgraded 714. Every pair of Steve McQueen’s is made with polarized lenses and features Persol’s Supreme Arrow motif not only at the hinges where the stems meet the lenses, but at the hinges within each stem. You’ll find Steve McQueen branding on the inside of the stems as well as on the compact carrying case. It’s available in several colorways, the most opulent of which is a 24k gold plated version.
Drawing on the art of calligraphy, this series of Persol frames is marked by design elements lifted from calligraphy pens. Each frame in the series features metal stems with elegant lines reminiscent of nibs and metal accents with ornamental striations. The Calligrapher Edition consists of a pantho and square styles as well as a circle and square double metal bridge styles.
Galleria 900 Series
For the Galleria 900 series, Persol mined their archives to bring back designs from the 1940s. Made in both optical and sunglass versions, the collection features vintage acetate patterns, shaped into somewhat compact in proportions and include the classic key bridge, Silver Arrow hinges and Meflecto temples.
The Cellor series is a take on the Clubmaster style, featuring an acetate brow line and rimless bottom half. Sunglasses in this series also feature a metal bridge and plastic nose pads. Similar to the Cellor original, the Cellor Evolution draws on Clubmaster styles, but features a squared-off lens.
The 3 Lenses series was Persol’s attempt at designing a sunglasses which fully masked the wearer’s face, before the invention of a single lens shield even existed. So, the addition of a third lens between the two eye lenses and top brow line was the solution. It has a distinct aviator silhouette and comes in two versions the PO3217S and its square sibling, the PO3223S.
The 4 Lenses series provides wraparound coverage with an additional pair of lenses at either side of the temples. This full coverage saw use among NASA’s astronauts. The series contains two styles. The PO0005 is a rounded lens with acetate frames, Silver Arrow and Meflecto stems. On the other hand, the PO0009 model features an almost cat-eye silhouette and though it lacks the Victor Flex and Silver Arrow motif, it still has the patented Meflecto technology.
Key West Collection
As the name implies, the Key West Collection takes influence from the Florida travel destination with a distinct ’90s edge seen in its rectangular shape. The most prominent feature in this collection is the thick, metal top bar. While the first Key West style features an all-metal construction, the Key West II employs a combination of metal frames and acetate rims.
Key West II
Inspired by famous writers, the Typewriter Edition series of glasses is decidedly vintage-leaning. Each frame features rounded lenses held by acetate frames and a metal bridge. Metal accents and rivets call back to classic typewriter designs while the name of the collection is inscribed inside the arms in the unmistakable typewriter font.
Among Persol’s most streamlined frames, the Metal Capsule is characterized by thin frames made of metal, tipped with acetate at the end of the stems for comfort. Available in a variety of lens types and metal finishes, the collection consists of the rounded PO2445S and the semi-octagonal PO2446S.
Inspired by classic vintage cameras, the Reflex Edition taps into the inner photographer. The PO3124S feature squarish lenses with an acetate rim and bridge while the PO3046S is comparably more flashy with acetate rims, metal bridge and the Silver Arrow at both the lens hinges as well as the inside corner of each eye. Both styles feature thin, tapered metal stems tipped with acetate.
This series of sunglasses is a balanced, yet striking contrast of acetate frames and a metal bridge. While the PO3184S follows the timeless rounded panto shape, the PO3186S is in the family of square lenses. Where Persol’s 714 and 649 lean into a heftier silhouette, the Combo Evolution cuts down on the bulk.
The Titanium Collection marries Persol’s Italian design with Japanese craftsmanship. Featuring premium titanium frames, the collection consists of four different shapes: Oval, Hexagonal, Double Bridge and Round. Each shape is made with titanium frames and nose pads, meticulously embellished with guilloche engraving.
This collection focuses on eye-catching acetate patterns and colors and is characterized by bold stripes, blending the translucent with the opaque. The colorways range from cobalt blues to blond yellow, creamy whites and black marble.
La Casa de Papel
Persol’s maintained a close relationship with tv and film for decades. This collection was made in collaboration with the Netflix original series La Casa de Papel. The gripping action-packed show centers around a group of criminals who take over the Spanish mint to print their own money. Its main character, The Professor, is seen wearing Persol sunglasses and this limited edition series of eyewear features a double bridge acetate design with packaging made to look like a brick of gold. It comes in three renditions, one of which is gussied up with 24k gold plating.
Persol & A.P.C.
In collaboration with French brand A.P.C., this three-piece collection takes the iconic 649 and renders it in limited-edition colorways. Two of them feature a transparent acetate frame while the clean all-white version is opaque and inspired by Kurt Cobain. All three come with non-polarized crystal gradient lenses.