Let me confess at the outset that for much of my life I considered all jewelry made of plastic to be “cheap junk”. After all, it was the sort of thing that I bought at the local Woolworths’ all through childhood – not that I didn’t love my “pop-beads” (something we Baby Boomer gals grew up wearing) but it was no big deal if any of those things got lost or broken. I continued to regard plastic jewelry as purely disposable stuff well into adulthood.
That opinion began to change when I became curious about a bracelet I inherited from my mom. It always fascinated me because as a kid I harbored suspicions that those fish inside were real… but how the heck did they get them in there?? Years later I learned that the stations are “reverse-carved and painted” Lucite and that many such pieces were made from decommissioned fighter plane windows after the end of WWII; they are sometimes called “warplane-window” jewelry. Hmmmm… maybe some plastics are interesting after all! (and if anyone has a matching necklace for this, do let me know, although in over a half century I have never yet seen one)
The next vintage plastic that caught my fancy was galalith. Invented in France, it used milk protein as a base ingredient.. hence the name (gala from the Greek word for milk, and lith from the word for stone – literally, “milk-stone” or “stone made from milk”). It was introduced at the 1900 Paris Exposition and quickly became a new medium for carved jewelry but there was one problem: production and thus availability was dependent on having a sufficient supply of milk. When the entirely chemical-based synthetic plastic later known as Bakelite became widely available, jewelry makers turned to that material instead and the manufacture of galalith fell by the wayside. Galalith is almost always seen in its characteristic shade of soft green. It also has a slightly different surface feel than the synthetic plastics; difficult to describe but easy to identify once familiar with it.
“Bakelite” is sometimes used as a catch-all term for any vintage opaque plastic jewelry item but technically it belongs only to the chemical formula developed by Leo Baekland in the late 1800s . Its authenticity can be carefully tested by certain products such as Simichrome polish, Awesome Cleaner, and the original Formula 409 which is no longer manufactured (the current 409 does not work for this). For some reason even though I love galalith I still lumped Bakelite and its close chemical relatives into the category of less-than-fascinating until I discovered the Rolls Royce of Bakelite jewelry, known colloquially as “Philadelphia Bakelite” and which is worth big bucks on the collector market.
These pieces have a unique construction style because they are composed of strips or bands of different color material painstakingly affixed together. The color strips always include a golden yellow (think schoolbus), a red, and olive green; the addition of a black strip makes the piece even more desirable. When it comes to this type, the more strips the better but it must have at least 3 colors. Sometimes a thin band of brass was sandwiched between the strips; those pieces are even more highly valued than the non-trimmed ones. The nickname “Philadelphia” comes from the fact that a bracelet made in this manner sold at auction in that city during the mid-1980s for the highest price ever paid for a piece of Bakelite jewelry – over $10,000 although sources differ as to whether it was closer to 10K or to twenty. Either way, that was some pricey plastic!!
Ever since then, genuine vintage Philadelphia Bakelite has been at the top of many a collector’s wantlist. “Vintage” in the case of these items means preferably 1920s or 1930s to possibly early 1940s. The older the better, naturally. As with all highly collectible items there are the inevitable copies (“fakelite”) on the market; one thing to look for is the clasp and how it was attached.
(UPDATE, 2/10/2015: The Bakelite brooch above was eventually sold in my now-closed Etsy shop some months later.)