And now, for something completely different: An eyewitness account at the ocularist

November 30, 2011 • Posted in blindness, Uncategorized by

So, as the guest blogger here I’m happy to introduce: Another guest blogger!

He’s Chuck Gullett. He and his lovely partner Rene are friends from our little Printers Row neighborhood. Last week while I was in Urbana, Chuck was kind enough to accompany Beth to an unusual (for most people) appointment. Since he’s a great photographer and storyteller, Beth asked whether he’d be willing to blog about the experience. He did that, and got a bunch of good shots — I’ll post a couple with his blog. Oh, and besides being a terrific photographer and friend, Chuck’s also a solid, honest real estate agent. So if you’re in the market….

Finally, don’t blame Chuck for the “eyewitness account” headline — I just couldn’t resist.

That's a whole lotta eyeballs right there. (By Chuck Gullett.)

With that, I present Chuck Gullett!

A trip to the ocularist

Between Harper’s retirement and Whitney’s training, I had the great opportunity to accompany Beth as her “Seeing Eye Chuck” for a visit to the ocularist.  The ocularist, as I learned, is the place to go when you need a new glass eye or just a little glass eye maintenance. The ocularist’s office, on the 16th floor of the Garland Building in Chicago, has a spectacular view of Lake Michigan, Millennium Park and Navy Pier. Ironically, the hundreds of eyes in the office are all neatly arranged in drawers and never able to enjoy the view.

On this visit, Beth was going in for a routine cleaning. As an observer, the process is fairly straightforward…

1) Remove glass eye with a device that looks like a miniature Nerf suction cup dart.

2) Try not to make an immature sucking sound as the eye is being removed.

3) Sit back and chat until the eye returns from the onsite laboratory, which I pictured to be somewhat like Grandpa’s lab from the “Munsters.”

When the ocularist returned with the beautifully polished eye, I asked a few questions and Beth talked him into showing me the lab and explaining the cleaning process. What I got was an enthusiastic lesson in the history, making and care of the good ol’ ocular prosthesis, or what we commonly refer to as a glass eye. First off, the eye is not even made of glass. Modern glass eyes are actually made of acrylic, which is extremely durable and more cost effective to manufacture.

The guys in the lab area told me about the heroic GI’s returning from WWII having a large demand for glass eyes. The glass eyes would tend to break by accident or “accidentally” around the time a GI wanted to visit the big city. A shortage in high quality imported glass and the cost of replacement eyes prompted the government to find a better material to make artificial eyes. Now, we have the modern version in durable acrylic.

So, what's your guess? (By Chuck Gullett)

To give you an idea of how durable the eyes are, Beth has had the same peeper for 25 years and the last time she had it polished was 4 years ago. Each eye is hand crafted for its owner and is a true piece of art. I looked through the drawers of sample eyes and the level of detail is really stunning. The blood vessels are recreated with silk threads while the pupil and iris take laborious hours to hand paint so they look realistic. The ocularist had notes from Beth’s last two visits where they recommended that she get fitted for a new eye, but Beth just smiled and said, “Yeah, I kinda like this one.”  I like that one, too.  I had no idea that Beth even had a glass eye.  One eye is real and one is not.  You can try to guess which is which, but good luck.

Anyway, I also learned that the cleaning/ polishing process is much like polishing jewelry. There is a buffing wheel and several different compounds to remove build-up and leave a nice smooth surface. The ocularist works the eye until it is just right, then rinses it off and you are ready to go.  I associate the feeling of a freshly polished glass eye like the smoothness your teeth have after a visit to the dentist.

All in all, it was a great afternoon. I got to spend some quality time with a friend, feed my odd curiosity with something out of the ordinary and learn something new. Anytime Whitney needs a day off, I’ll be happy to help out.

Lori K. On November 30, 2011 at 10:40 am

Wow! I didn’t know that Beth had a ‘glass’ eye either. I’m curious – are the old fashioned true glass eyes considerably heavier than the acrylic? Like glasses, I can’t imagine using real glass now simply due to the weight. It makes me wonder if the weight impacted the wearer’s eye socket back in the day.

Chuck Gullett On November 30, 2011 at 10:55 am

Hi Lori – I got to hold both types of eye and they were similar in weight. They showed me how the older type was made with a hollow glass “bulb” that they would heat and collapse inward making the concave shape of the inner eye. It seemed fairly lightweight, but much more fragile.

Carl On November 30, 2011 at 4:13 pm

I never thought of this being a career. Maybe they should feature an ocularist on the “Dirty Jobs” TV show.

Bob On November 30, 2011 at 4:14 pm

I’m guessing the left one is fake, right?

Chuck Gullett On November 30, 2011 at 7:59 pm

I’ll let Beth answer that one!

Shannon On November 30, 2011 at 4:37 pm

Fascinating. Chuck, did you ever think that photography would lead to such unique experiences?

Chuck Gullett On November 30, 2011 at 7:59 pm

Shannon – never in my wildest dreams, the photography gig has led to a ton of great opportunities and I love being able to share them!

Maria On November 30, 2011 at 6:13 pm

Wow…those ocularists are artists!!! My best friend wears one and I have accompanied her to NYC several times for cleanings or once when she needed a new one. I was so impressed with the work the woman does. Her ocularist is getting ready to retire and my friend is really upset that she won’t be able to find another as good. Too bad she doesn’t live in Chicago…I’d be able to tell her where to go.

penn nelson On December 1, 2011 at 10:03 am

What a great picture of Beth’s smile, it makes both eyes light up!


Janet Sterling On December 1, 2011 at 5:31 pm

Must share this with Anita.

nb On December 1, 2011 at 7:51 pm

Great post. My brother has one and I never knew all this detail. I can never remember which one of his is the artificial one either!

marilee amodt On December 1, 2011 at 9:27 pm

One more enlightening adventure with beth! I can never tell which eye is “glass” -so congrats to those skilled workers. Enjoying the guest bloggers!

The Empty Pen On December 3, 2011 at 11:02 am

Wow, I had no idea, Beth. Thanks for the insight, Chuck…it’s fascinating. I’m a little jealous. What a great way to spend an afternoon.

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