I've had a super successful weekend at the boot fairs - lovely Mr. Matin kindly drove me to not one but three in two days. I scored some great booty - some for me, some for the shop - including marcasite ear-clips, a swallow brooch, a 30s/40s dress, a pair of crochet gloves, a large collection of glass buttons, a pair of 1940s-style 80s shoes, a lovebirds brooch (which was a gift from Matin), a cute printed fabric pouch, a tupperware box of sewing notions, and a 1960s psychedelic shift dress. But of my new acquisitions what I'm most excited about is the plastic jewellery.
Have I mentioned how much I love vintage plastics? I don't know why, I just find them really appealing. When it comes to jewellery, I'll take plastics over metal and rhinestones every time - whether it's bakelite (though I'm still waiting to find an affordable bakelite bangle), celluloid, hard plastic or lucite. My personal collection is shown above. I recently listed a couple of pieces in my Etsy shop. I've actually been intending to write a guide to vintage plastics for a while, and I've finally got round to it. It's long, but I hope you find it useful!
Generally considered the earliest plastic, and included here really only for the sake of completeness, Vulcanite is heat-treated rubber, and was popular around the late Victorian to Edwardian era for mourning jewellery as a replacement for jet.
Celluloid was originally developed in the 1850s by Alexander Parkes, under the name Parkesine, but was commercialised about 20 years later. Celluloid jewellery - more delicate and lighter than bakelite, and sometimes flexible - was most popular from the Edwardian to Art Deco period. Celluloid was used to imitate more expensive materials like mother-of-pearl, tortoiseshell and ivory, and was popularly used for trinket boxes and vanity sets. Imitation ivory known as Ivorine was made by pressing sheets of celluloid and then slicing through, giving the ivory-like striations.
Celluloid is very flammable. It is also sensitive to heat, moisture and excessive dryness, and can denature quite dramatically if not cared for correctly. Some celluloid gives off a vinegary smell under hot water.
In 1927 a new non-flammable material was launched by the Celluloid Corporation, marketed under the trade name Lumarith. This material could be manufactured in bright colours, or transparent with inclusions, like coloured or metal flakes. New injection moulding techniques meant large quantities of plastic objects could be produced quickly and cheaply, in almost any shape or size. Designers quickly realised the possibilities and enormous quantities of inexpensive plastic jewelry appeared on the market in the USA and Europe in bold colourful designs.
The most famous of the early plastics, invented by Belgian chemist Dr. Leo Baekeland in 1907 and commercially available from about 1912. The material is a combination of phenol and formaldehyde, compressed at very high pressure. The term Bakelite is used both as the trade name of Leo Baekeland's original plastic, and as a term for the group of thermoset plastics made from formaldehyde-based resins, which can sometimes lead to confusion (it certainly confused me in researching this article, as I came across conflicting information).
Most early Bakelite has a mottled appearance resulting from the addition of wood sawdust filler to the brown phenol-formaldehyde resin for stability. Bakelite's properties - it did not readily conduct electricity or heat, and could be moulded into exciting shapes - lent it to a wide range of applications and it was particularly popular for radio casings.
The Catalin company acquired the patent around 1930 and refined the manufacturing process to produce a bakelite that was translucent and colourless, rather than opaque brown, so unlike other bakelite phenolics it could be dyed bright colors or even marbled, making it highly popular for decorative uses. The Catalin company produced huge quanities of beads, earrings, bangles and pins through the 1930s. Most "Bakelite" jewellery is, strictly speaking, Catalin. Coololdgames.com has an excellent guide to the differences between Bakelite and Catalin.
Bakelite Properties and Identification
Bakelite plastics are notably very heavy and very brittle - it's prone to shattering if dropped, whereas a more modern plastic would crack or split. Items of bakelite jewellery were individually cast and polished, so have no seams or mould marks. It can often be identified by the acidic smell of formaldehyde when warmed by rubbing or holding under hot water. Tapping two bakelite pieces together will produce a clunking sound. Catalin has very similar properties to Bakelite except that even in darker colours it is slightly translucent, so if you hold it up to the light some light will filter through, while true Bakelite is completely opaque.
Bakelite's oft-forgotten cousin. Unlike the Phenolics, Urea Formaldehyde could be made in white, as well as bright colours, solid or marbled. It found widespread for kitchenware, picnic sets and homewares during the 1920s and 30s under catchy trade names like Bandalasta, Lingalonga and BEATL Ware. It is lighter than bakelite plastics. It seems that the name Catalin can refer to Urea Formaldehyde as well as phenolic.
Lucite is an acrylic resin (other brand names include Plexiglas and Perspex) that could be manufactured in almost any colour and can run from opaque to transparent. First developed by DuPont in the 1930s, Lucite was inexpensive, easy to work with and versatile: It could be carved, moulded, and inset. Embedded Lucite made by incorporating glitter, rhinestones, sea shells, and other materials was widely used for box purses and shoes, which are now highly collectable.
In jewellery design it was often combined with Celluloid or Bakelite for effect - brooches made with Lucite overlaid with moulded Celluloid cameos were very popular. Another effective technique for brooches and pendants was to reverse-carve flowers, which were then either coloured naturalistically to appear lifelike, or left unpainted to resemble etched glass. My mother has a lovely collection of these.
Other Vintage Plastics
Also worth a mention is Casein, a plastic derived from milk protein. Casein plastic could not be moulded like Bakelite, but had to be cut or carved from rods or sheets. It was glossy and could be polished to a long-lasting silky lustre, but due to its tendency to warp or splinter could only be used for small pieces. It was used for jewellery, and more commonly fountain pen cases and knitting needles. Because of its ability to take surface dyes (the colour could be added to the finished piece, rather than at the manufacturing stage as with many other plastics), Casein found its greatest success in buttons and buckles, which could be dyed to match fabrics. It is still used for buttons today.
Much of 1940s-50s plastic jewellery, like the blue bow-shaped pin in the top right corner of my photo, is made from generic "hard plastic", about which I can find little information. It seems to be sometimes referred to as celluloid.
Plastipedia has an interesting History of Plastics timeline (did you know that Scotch tape was invented in 1930?).
Above: 1950s hard plastic Scottie dogs brooch; 1950s-60s reverse-painted Lucite daisy brooch; 1940s Celluloid flower basket brooch; 1950s soft plastic feather/fern brooch; 1950s soft plastic swallows brooch; 1960s Moonglow Lucite (?) necklaces.