My good friend Delores loves shopping at Dogbotz Boneyard as she has been a collector of costume jewelry for a few years now. While chatting last week, Delores asked me about the use of plastic in vintage costume jewelry as she had recently discovered Bakelite, both in its colorful beauty and in its investment value. “So, Patrick, tell me about plastics,” Delores insisted, so here’s what I shared with her.
As there were three musical Andrews Sisters (Patty, Maxine, and LaVerne) who were established singers and radio personalities throughout the 1940s and 50s, so, too, were there three plastics that made costume jewelry quite eye-catching and, today, often expensive. These renowned “plastic sisters” are Celluloid, Bakelite and Lucite.
Dating from the beginning of the 20th century to the 1930s, Celluloid is one of the earliest man-made plastics widely used in costume jewelry. Celluloid has certain characteristics that differentiate it from other plastics. In general, pieces made from Celluloid tend to be thin, light, somewhat brittle, sensitive to heat (they crack and craze), and early Celluloid can be extremely flammable (do not ever test with a hot pin!). Celluloid is flexible. It can be bent, twisted, and molded. When placed briefly in hot water, early Celluloid smells like camphor, while later cellulose acetate smells like vinegar. Celluloid jewelry should be stored carefully. Extremes of temperature, moisture, exposure to cosmetics or perfume, or lack of adequate ventilation can cause a Celluloid piece to begin to discolor, crack, or even disintegrate. A piece of Celluloid jewelry so afflicted is contagious to other Celluloid pieces; thus, it should be segregated from other Celluloid jewelry.
Developed by Dr. Leo H. Baekeland and patented in 1909, Bakelite was the first thermosetting phenol formaldehyde resin. Other companies produced similar phenolics, calling their products Catalin, Prystal, Marblette, and Durez, but since it is almost impossible to identify pieces by their manufacturers, phenolics in general are commonly referred to as Bakelite. A very wide range of items were produced from Bakelite, including billiard balls, telephones, radios, kitchen utensils, poker chips, and, of course, jewelry. Bakelite’s unique characteristic is that once it has been heated and formed, it can neither be re-melted nor re-formed. It can be cast, laminated, inlaid, carved, and tinted almost any color of the rainbow. Bakelite colors, however, do change with age. Most pieces that collectors identify as apple-juice yellow were originally colorless, and white Bakelite mellows to a creamy ivory color. Bakelite can be transparent, translucent or opaque. Bakelite tends to be heavy. When two pieces are tapped together they make a distinctive deep clack, as opposed to the high-pitched click of later plastics. Bakelite jewelry develops a surface patina over time. The surface color tends to darken, and very fine pits and scratches are produced with wear. A nice patina enhances the value of a piece of Bakelite jewelry. When placed briefly in hot water, most but not all Bakelite has a unique and unforgettable carbolic acid smell. Bakelite should be stored carefully, although it is not as fragile as Celluloid.
Lucite, an acrylic resin, was first marketed by DuPont in 1937, and it began to appear in costume jewelry around 1940. As with Bakelite, Lucite is a thermoset plastic, but it was much cheaper to produce. Lucite could be molded, cast, laminated, inlaid, and carved. Although clear and colorless in its original state, it could be tinted any color of the rainbow, from transparent to opaque. Lucite continues to be used in jewelry manufacture, but it reached its height of popularity in the 1940s and 50s. Common post-war pieces of interest to collectors include clear Lucite embedded with glitter, seashells, rhinestones, or flowers. When placed briefly in hot water, Lucite is odorless. Older Lucite can develop cracks from age or exposure to heat.
Wishing to shift her status from novice to aficionado of plastics in costume jewelry, Delores probe me for more information. “Patrick, how can I tell whether I have the real thing, that my moss-colored bangle is truly made of Bakelite?” she inquired. So, I offered her three standard tests that collectors use to determine authenticity.
Assuming that the plastic piece of jewelry does not include string, wood, hand-painted decoration, or other non-plastic decorative materials, one can hold an edge of the piece under hot running tap water for up to 30 seconds and then smell it. Bakelite has a characteristic Phenol or fresh shellac odor. No odor probably means that the piece is Lucite.
Formula 409®, the all-purpose cleaner manufactured by The Clorox Company, is a good testing agent. One should test a small area of the plastic jewelry piece, preferably on the reverse of a pin or the inside of a bracelet, by putting a small amount of Formula 409 on a cotton swab and rubbing it on the test area for a few seconds. If the swab develops a yellowish residue, regardless of the original color of the plastic, then most likely the piece is Bakelite. The tester should be sure to wash the test area immediately afterwards with mild dishwashing soap and warm water and towel dry immediately afterward. Formula 409 is a superior testing agent is it does not strip the plastic finish of the jewelry.
Simichrome Polish is available at one’s local hardware store. It is expensive, but well worth the investment of one, like Delores, intends to become a collector of plastic costume jewelry. Simichrome is a superior Bakelite polishing product, and it does a wonderful job on silver and other metals, too. When polished with Simichrome, Bakelite will often leave a yellow residue on the cloth, regardless of the original color of the Bakelite, thereby verifying the plastic jewelry’s authenticity.
Enjoy the summer;
it’s a great time for the ladies
to show off their plastic costume jewelry!
All the best,
Dogbotz Boneyard, LLC