A Season of Celluloid to the Boom of Bakelite | April 14th, 2015
I would have never dreamed that plastic jewelry could come with a high price tag. But if it did, I was sure to find it – and fall in love with it.
That is exactly what happened when I found the most incredible 1930s cameo statement necklace:
After noting the price and discovering it was made completely out of plastic, I figured it must be a very rare and special form of plastic. Either that, or I was about to pay much more than what it was actually worth.
That prompted me to investigate the history of vintage plastic. But not before I made a spontaneous decision to buy the necklace. I have learned my lesson the hard way in the past by waiting too long to buy something I’ve completely fallen in love with and then it’s gone. And with unique vintage pieces, as I have learned, it’s gone forever.
The rust-colored chain and black cameo on my necklace is made of celluloid, one of the first plastics to ever be used in making jewelry. It is derived from a natural plant fiber and was originally developed in England during the 1860s.
Two American brothers named John Wesley and Isaiah Hyatt began experimenting to make billiard balls out of something other than ivory as more and more elephants were sacrificing their lives for their tusks. In 1869, John Wesley patented a coating for the billiard balls combining cloth, ivory dust, shellac, and a flammable solution called collodion, also known as cellulose nitrate.
In 1870, they experimented a little more by adding camphor to cellulose nitrate, patenting another process that created a horn-like material. In 1872, Isaiah named their new product “celluloid.”
Many items began to be made of celluloid including dolls, buttons, buckles, hair accessories, and even jewelry. Before celluloid was invented, ivory, horn, and other expensive animal products would have been used to make the same items.
Some celluloid jewelry dates back to 1900, but it was especially popular during the Art Deco era from the 1920s through the ’30s. Dress and fur clips, bangles studded with small rhinestones, brooches, necklaces, and earrings made of celluloid were all the rage at that time.
Celluloid is very light and can be transparent. Celluloid jewelry often comes in ivory, black, and coral colors. Here are a couple of celluloid earrings with floral motifs that I repurposed into rings:
Although it was easily molded or bent into shape when it was made, celluloid is quite brittle and can crack when exposed to high heat. Unfortunately, celluloid had a few additional negative characteristics as well. It decomposed with time and was also easily combustible. Therefore, the billiard balls did not do so well as they had the tendency to explode on contact!
By the 1930s, celluloid was no longer manufactured at major factories. Today, it is only used in the making of a few items including accordions, ping-pong balls, and guitar picks.
Celluloid was soon overtaken by two new plastics invented called Bakelite and Catalin. In 1907, a Belgian chemist by the name of Dr. Leo Hendrik Baekeland was conducting experiments in New York to create a replacement for shellac which was in limited supply.
Leo Baekeland in 1916
Shellac came from resin secretions from the female lac insect on trees in the forests of India and Thailand. It took thousands and thousands of lac bugs to produce just one kilogram.
Baekeland mixed phenol, formaldehyde, and a wood flour filler together. After curing this mixture under heat and pressure, a hard plastic material formed. He gave it the name “Bakelite” which he patented in 1909. It was the first plastic made out of synthetic components. He tried using other fillers but was most successful with wood and asbestos fibers.
Bakelite was resistant to scratches, heat, and electricity. It was also very hard and durable. Once it had been molded and cast, it could not be melted. Baekeland referred to it as “the material of a thousand uses.”
The early uses of Bakelite were for radio, television, telephone casings, cameras, handles on pots, and many other products. It was also used to make costume jewelry which had its biggest boom in the 1930s during the Great Depression. Leo Baekeland has been called “the father of the plastics industry” for his invention which marked the beginning of the modern plastics industry.
An expert in plastics was kind enough to take a look at my necklace and told me that the frame around the black cameo was made of Bakelite. Because of its color, it is technically referred to as “root beer” Bakelite. It was not uncommon for earlier jewelry to be made with a combination of celluloid and Bakelite.
Bakelite can be transparent, translucent, or opaque. It could imitate tortoiseshell, coral, ivory, amber, and other expensive materials which made it attractive to all income levels, including the very wealthy. It was sold in the finer department stores in a wide range of colors.
A great selling point for Bakelite jewelry was that it was less likely to spontaneously combust! In addition, the price was much lower than celluloid.
In 1922, The Bakelite Corporation was formed from a merger of three companies including Baekeland’s General Bakelite Company, the Condensite Company, and the Redmanol Chemical Products Company. After Baekeland’s heat and pressure patents expired in 1927, The Bakelite Corporation faced major competition.
Bakelite incorporated fillers to give it hardiness but it also gave the color of the jewelry a dark appearance. In 1927, their competition, the Catalin Company, developed a process without fillers enabling them to produce 15 new, brighter colors for jewelry that looked similar to Bakelite but was transparent. They called it “Catalin.”
During the 1930s, jewelry made out of beads in these new colors was quite popular as well as wearing matching sets of bangles, earrings, and rings.
Colorful Catalin buttons from the 1930s
Unfortunately, Catalin shrinks over time and oxidation will turn white pieces yellow while darkening other colors. Catalin jewelry production continued until the end of WWII in 1945. It then became too costly for the company to stay in business as each piece was quite labor intensive and had to be individually cast and polished.
In 1993, the American Chemical Society designated Bakelite as a National Historic Chemical Landmark in recognition of its significance as the world’s first synthetic plastic.
I have no regrets after my spontaneous decision to buy that 100% plastic vintage necklace made of celluloid and Bakelite. Of course, that could change if it ever spontaneously combusts!
*Catalin buttons – photo credit: Science History Institute
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