In 2007, archaeologists digging in southeastern Iran discovered the oldest known artificial eye, dating back to between 2900 and 2800 BC. In the five millennia since, fake eyes have gone through many style and material transformations—from clay and gold to the modern glass and acrylic.
The ancient eye in Iran belonged to a woman who was extraordinarily tall for the period. Her prosthetic was a lightweight half-sphere made of bitumen paste and covered in a thin layer of gold. A gold thread running through two holes in the artifact held it in place, ensuring that the carved designs on the front stayed centered to give a full-value shock to the other residents of the ancient “Burnt City.”
Early fake eyes like this were designed to be worn outside the eye socket, presumably over the scarred remains of the wearer’s original eye. Romans and Egyptians were known to make similar artificial eyes as early as 400 BC. They used painted clay affixed with cloth, worn over the socket.
Ambrose Paré, a French surgeon born in 1510, provided the first record of implantable fake eyes. He used gold and silver to create prosthetics that would be worn in the socket, where a natural eye would have been. Artificial eyes were typically inserted into the socket only if the eye was already missing; if the eye was present but atrophied, it would be left in place and covered with an old-style prosthetic. Enucleation—surgery to remove damaged eyes—was not commonly performed until the 19th century.
By the late 16th century, Venetian glassblowers had developed glass eyes. Venice held the secrets of glass eye-making tightly and remained the sole large-scale manufacturer of glass eyes until the late 18th century, when Paris became the centre of glass eye production, soon followed by Germany. Germany produced the bulk of glass eyes in the world, and later glass for prosthetic eye production elsewhere, until World War II.
With German goods unavailable in the US during World War II, American ocularists started making fake eyes out of acrylic plastic. Acrylic remains the preferred material for prosthetic eyes today.
Sammy Davis Jr. became one of the best-known fake eye wearers following a car crash in 1954. When recovery of his remaining eye was uncertain, friend Jeff Chandler offered to give up one of his own eyes to prevent Davis’s complete blindness. Fortunately, Davis recovered vision in one eye, wearing a glass eye in the other.
Canadian hockey goalie Baz Bastien lost an eye when struck by a puck during training camp. Though his career as a player was over, Bastien went on to coach professional hockey for many years.
While a fake eye might be an impediment for a hockey goalie, for actor Peter Falk (beloved detective Lt. Columbo and the storyteller in The Princess Bride), the loss of an eye may have made his career. It gave him a characteristic squint that brought many colorful characters to life. While we cannot recommend enucleation for personal advancement, if you need a fake eye, make it work for you like Peter Falk. For less serious eye problems, consider LASIK, the easy, pain-free solution to common refractive errors.