Though American Optical Company (AO) has been churning out sleek glasses in a Southbridge, Massachusetts factory since 1833, the heritage brand still flies under the radar. The reason for the company's relatively low profile is actually a tribute to its wares. AO doesn't have to aggressively market its resilient glasses because they are extraordinarily popular among servicemen, who sometimes refer to them as the "Armed Forces' best-kept secret." This is hardly a new trend: In 1946, AO's factory employees were honored for their contribution to national defense, nearly 20 million pairs of goggles and specs for Allied troops.
The classic lines and economy of the Original Pilot (OP), otherwise known as "Flight Goggle 58," make it our favorite pair. Engineered with military assistance to provide pilots with maximum performance, comfort, and protection, the OP has a major distinction beyond its good looks: Neil Armstrong and the Apollo 11 crew brought theirs – currently on display in the Smithsonian – to the moon. Later that year, these Zelig-like glasses got a starring role in 'Easy Rider.'
Squarer and less flashy than Ray-Ban Aviators, the OP can be customized by lens type and color, temple style, and frame color and size (down to the millimeter). AO told us that its distortion-free, scratch-resistant gray glass lens has been the enduring top seller, but the company now offers polycarbonates and polarized lenses.
They may have been engineered for military life, but AO's glasses look just as good on civilians – especially when they happen to be climbing out of jets. [$78, aoeyewear.com]