Sunglasses Part Four: Randolph Engineering

I’ve written about sunglasses before: Ray Ban Wayfarers in Sunglasses Part One, Ray Ban Aviators in Sunglasses Part Two and Moscot in Sunglasses Part Three. Among my collection of shades I also have several pairs from Randolph Engineering.

Randolph seems to be in a public relations tussle with American Optical as they both lay claim to being the sunglasses supplied to US forces. It seems similar to the dual claims of Victorinox and Wenger, makers of Swiss Army knives. as they claimed to be the “original” and the “genuine” knife respectively … until Victorinox settled the whole thing by buying Wenger in 2005!

As contracts to supply US forces are not endless and can flip between manufacturers it seems that both companies have been official suppliers at one time, so they can both claim to be the real deal. American Optical currently goes with “original” while Randolph Engineering claims to be “authentic”. I believe in all fairness that AO got the original contract in 1958 to supply these now familiar square-framed glasses, while RE joined the fray in 1978.

I have experience of both brands. My own history is that having lost my original pair of Ray Ban Wayfarers in 1999 which I’d worn for ten years, I asked my then-girlfriend to buy me some American Optical aviators for my birthday in November that year. They were available for about $40 from the military surplus store, so I chose black coated frames and grey lenses.

I have to say I was disappointed. The hinges worked loose in a short time and the black frame coating started to chip away, revealing that teal-green colour of oxidation beneath. They also came in a poor quality soft poly-vinyl case with a Velcro fastening – not very robust or secure. I only kept these a matter of months. There is no photographic evidence of me wearing them and I don’t even remember their fate – either passed on, donated or dumped! I do remember as early as Spring 2000 being in Las Vegas on a work trip and scouting round the forum shops (unsuccessfully) in Caesar’s Palace looking for new shades.

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I think my next pair of shades was a pair of budget Ray Ban B&L I’s later in 2000 before a return to the old faithful Wayfarers, but I’ve always had a sneaking admiration for the form-follows-function utility of military-inspired gear (note my admiration for my Dad’s RAF issue aviators in Sunglasses – Part Two) so several years later I gave the Randolph Engineering version a try.

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I don’t remember how much I paid but it was more than $40! First I got the standard chrome frames with grey glass lenses but some time later RE came out with matt grey metal frames to which I took a liking, so I gave the chrome ones to a mate and got the matt greys. Notice in the picture above that these were acquired before Randolph jumped on the bandwagon of branding their emblem on the lenses. Anyway, they felt a lot more robust than the AO version, with stiffer hinges and even came with a mini tool kit with screwdrivers, extra screws and nose pads.

This picture below is from July 2010 on the day I proposed to my wife in Paris and both sunglasses and wife look just as good now ten years on. I’ve since acquired many other pairs of shades so they don’t get daily use! The metal frames do not feel heavy to wear and the silicone nose pads are soft and grippy.

With Barb at The Louvre, Paris, July, 2010.

The square style of aviators came in during the late 1950s, replacing the teardrop shape of classic aviators. At this time pilots were being issued with crash helmets to wear in flight, to protect them from injury should they have to eject. (Unfortunately that still didn’t help Goose!). The cable ear pieces of those old aviator glasses were no longer appropriate for use with a helmet, hence the straight ‘bayonet’ style arms allowing easy on and off while wearing a helmet and breathing gear.

My original intention on getting this style of sunglasses was to wear these with my crash helmet when I’m riding but I found that above fifty miles per hour the wind gets behind them causing my eyes to stream so they are only worn now when I’m walking.

I was impressed enough with Randolph to become a repeat buyer. Some time later I got their ‘Concorde’ model which is in the traditional teardrop shape with standard ear pieces. I again got these in matt grey frames with grey glass, and deliberately chose them in a small size to contrast with other larger Ray Ban aviators I own. Note that by the time I acquired these the lenses were branded.

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I also got a pair of Randolph Crew Chief which is a slightly larger, rounder teardrop shape with green glass lenses and chrome frames with spring hinges, making them really comfortable to wear.

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A quick look at respective websites reveals that prices have jumped up in the twenty plus years since I first looked into the square aviator style. AO are currently $149, while RE are $219. Randolph now seems to have a wider range of options in terms of size, frame material and lens type and colour.

Strangely neither AO nor RE were used in the iconic film ‘Top Gun’ even though they were military issue at the time. Ray Ban paid for their own product placement in that film which I’m sure was a good investment as the film is credited with boosting their sales. The nearest to the square frame style is the Ray Ban Caravan worn by Tom Skerrit as Viper. They are a similar square shape to the AO/RE style but as we see him clean these glasses when Maverick goes to visit him to discuss his options following the death of Goose, we see they have L-shaped ear pieces so are not regulation issue.

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Square military-issue aviators have been on display in pop culture, perhaps most infamously by Robert de Niro as Travis Bickle famously descends into rage and psychosis in ‘Taxi Driver’:

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Sales may have gotten a boost when we saw John Hamm wear them as Don Draper in ‘Mad Men’:

‘Spy Game’ is an underrated espionage thriller in which we see Robert Redford sporting similar shades:

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It seems that these shades are deployed by cinema and TV costumers either to to hint at a character’s military background, or in the case of Robert Duvall as Colonel Kilgore in ‘Apocalypse Now’, for active duty military characters:
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I used to work with a doctor who had previously been a USAF Flight Surgeon and wore this style of frame daily with his clear prescription lenses fitted, which was a good look. I’m reaching that vintage at which my sight is inevitably starting to deteriorate so I’ve had prescription lenses fitted into two pairs of Randolph Elite frames to sharpen up my distance vision while driving. These have small rectangular-shaped lenses and spring hinges. I got photochromic lenses in gunmetal frames with a clip-on tinted frame, and grey flash tints in a black frame. I chose to get polycarbonate lenses rather than the glass as supplied by Randolph making them very lightweight and comfortable to wear.

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