Vintage Plastic Jewelry
The first pieces of plastic jewelry I bought were made form a material invented by the Belgian chemist, Dr Leo Baekeland around 1908 that he named Bakelite. Bakelite did not readily conduct electricity or heat and consequently it was used extensively in the manufacture of electrical products. It could be moulded into extravagant shapes, perfect for the period and probably most famously, for the manufacture of radio casings. It was once even considered as a substitute for metal in the production of the one-cent coin.
Lots of jewelry was manufactured in this hard brittle substance, particularly chunky, colourful brooches. Considered to be the first “fashion jewellery”, often copying designer jewelry of the period made from more expensive materials. Manufactured in a variety of colours from the familiar dark brown of early electrical fittings, the reds and greens of vintage picnic sets to the black of kitchen appliances. It was common to find black Bakelite handles or knobs on furniture or coupled with silver, silver plate or chrome – particularly on tea and coffee sets – as decorative knops or handles. It was very popular on dressing tables too, where it made a very good substitute for tortoiseshell.
Plastic vintage and retro jewelry used to be cheap and could usually be found in thrift shops for a few pence. Not any more though. Plastic jewelry is becoming more and more difficult to find and good decorative pieces rarely appear in charity shops anymore.
Although invented much earlier than Bakelite, being a by-product of the photographic processing industry and used, like Bakelite, as a substitute for more expensive materials, Celluloid was highly flammable and did not really come into it’s own until the 1920’s. In 1927 a new non-flammable material, marketed by the Celluloid Corporation under the trade name “Lumarith” was launched. This material could be manufactured in bright, sometimes lurid 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. Brightly coloured vintage accessories like powder compacts, lipsticks, cigarette cases, sunglasses and even handbags were also manufactured in Celluloid for an eager audience.