Tart Optical stands as one of the most legendary eyewear companies in American history. Founded in the mid-1940s by Julius Tart, the company became famous in the 1950s when James Dean started wearing their Arnel frames. The irony is that Dean was actually considered ill-dressed by his Hollywood contemporaries. Humphrey Bogart, for example, considered him a punk and a slob. While his peers dressed in suits and refined themselves in high society, James Dean rode around in Porsches, smoked Winston cigarettes, and wore Lee denim and white t-shirts. However, he cemented a certain rebel look for an entire generation, so when he implicitly endorsed Tart by wearing them, the company became incredibly popular for the next decade or two.
The style of the 50s and 60s, however, eventually gave way, and by the 70s, Tarts ceased to be fashionable. When Tart shut down in the 1980s, their frames were made available to union workers and Medicaid clients for less than $30 a piece.
A mid-century revival started bubbling, however, in the 1990s. I remember it clearly, as I got quite into mid-century furniture at the time. As people became enamored with that period again, some enthusiasts dug up the old Arnel frames, and Tart’s classic, mid-century look instantly became a hit once more. Vintage dealers exported them to Japan, where they were especially popular, and once the online marketplace opened, I saw original Arnels sell for as much as $1,000.
In 2008, Julius Tart died, and a year later, the owner of Four Your Eyes, a celebrated vintage eyewear shop in Los Angeles, bought the rights to Tart Optical’s name. The company promised to come out with the legendary frames again, and the wares just began debuting this past summer or so. They seem to be, by all measures, the same as the originals.
I was thinking about buying a pair of Arnels over the summer. At $200, however, and with no return policy (only exchange), I was hesitant to order them online. Now, unfortunately, the price has jumped to $425, which makes them even harder to justify.
The upside is that there are Arnel replicas all over the market. Moscot’s Lemtosh looks similar, as do Classic Spec’s Amherst and Dolabany’s Arnold. All these are around $100 per frame, and if you search for “Tart Arnel” on eBay, you’ll find many other models for even cheaper.
The differences are small. Tart uses functional rivets on the front and sides of their glasses in order to secure the hinge plates. The “metal trims” on the replicas, on other hand, are simply glued on and serve no purpose aside from decoration. When Tart’s Arnels were $200, I thought it might be worth the extra $100 just to have some authentic detailing, but when they’re $425, it’s hard to justify paying $300+ more for such differences. If you’re a hardcore eyewear enthusiast, perhaps the detailing is still worth it to you. For everyone else, however, at least you know who originated this iconic style. It’s always good to know a little history.
Below are some photos of Tart’s frames. The first set of photos, which have the blue backgrounds, are of original vintage Tart Arnels in both the Amber and Blackwood colorways. The second set of photos, with the white backgrounds, are of the newly relaunched line. Pictured are the Arnels, FDRs, and T-Round models. Finally, there are some more photos of vintage Tarts, as well as James Dean in his Arnels, for your viewing pleasure.
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- funkypresident said: “Tart uses functional rivets on the front and sides of their glasses in order to secure the hinge plates.” Those functional rivets went away for a reason, i’ve been told. That they were not very strong and weakened over time.
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