There’s a perplexing plethora of vintage plastic jewelry for sale that is described as being “celluloid”, “bakelite”, “lucite”, etc – but what exactly IS it? and does it really matter? Actually it does but not for the reasons you might think.
Vintage jewelry made of (or with) plastic falls into one of six groups: celluloid, casein, cellulose acetate, phenolics which include Bakelite, and acrylics which include Lucite. You’ll notice that I’ve only capitalized two of those names and there’s a reason for that. The words celluloid, bakelite and lucite have become so generalized that instead of referring to a specific material, often only a general group is meant. For instance, readers of a certain age 🙂 may recall when it was common to refer to any non-professional camera as a “kodak” even if it was made by some other company, or being asked at work to “make a xerox of this report” even when the photocopy machine was not actually made by Xerox Corporation. These generalized terms came into the language because at one time those manfacturers were the first and/or the most recognizable makers of a product. And so it was with Celluloid, Bakelite and Lucite … all of which in their capitalized form are trademarked names BUT in today’s marketplace are used as “shorthand” terms for all plastics falling into the same chemical category.
As Lillian Baker aptly put it in her introduction to ‘Plastic Jewelry of the Twentieth Century’, “unless a piece of jewelry is marked “Bakelite” or “Catalin” or “Celluloid” (or any trademarks cited in the article which is printed in Appendix A), it is virtually impossible to pinpoint the actual product used for jewelry collected today.” (italics mine)
So now that we’ve clarified that a piece described as “celluloid” is referring to any one of a large group of vintage plastics, it’s important to know that ALL plastics – whether made 60 years or 60 days ago – fall into one of two categories: Thermoplastic or Thermoset.
A thermoplastic is a plastic that has been shaped in some way (cast, molded, cut, carved, whatever) and then hardened as it cooled. However, if sufficient heat is applied to any part of it – and that could be as high a temperature as boiling water or as low as 140F from tap water or being left in the sun – it will soften again. The word “plastic” derives from the Greek plastikos meaning something that is malleable or soft. Thus a thermoplastic is a substance that can and will become soft and malleable again (or damaged) via the application of heat.
On the other hand, an item made from a thermoset formula also begins life as a “plastic” (soft/malleable) substance that is then shaped and subsequently hardened as it cooled. However, it is now in a permanent form and even if heat is applied to it will remain “set” in that form and will not again return to its original soft (plastic) state.
Within these two categories of plastic fall the six major groups found in vintage items.
1. Celluloid (cellulose nitrate)
This is the original and very flammable material invented by the Hyatt Brothers in New Jersey in 1868. It is a thermoplastic which has very little heat resistance; pieces will be damaged by the use of a ‘hot point’ test and sometimes even by contact with very hot tap water. It was often used to imitate ivory (ivoroid form), tortoise shell, amber, coral, and mother of pearl (an iridescent laminated form often used for 1920s and 1930s dresser sets). It can occur in pretty much any color imaginable, from solid and dense to translucent or transparent. It was formed into sheets of various thicknesses, rods, and blocks. The existence of evenly spaced parallel grain lines, especially in the faux-ivory jewelry pieces, are a giveway that it is celluloid. It often yellows with age and so all those pale yellow/ecru-colored Deco era brooches seen today were much closer to either clear or white back then. True celluloid – made according to the original formula using cotton fibers, nitric acids and camphor – was not made after WWII except in Occupied Japan who had for decades held the world monopoly on the camphor trade. Celluloid jewelry made in Japan during the first half of the 20th century often included wonderfully delicate hand painting as well as intricate designs (our next blog article will focus on Japanese celluloid brooches).
Trademarked names for “celluloid” include Amerith, Celluloid, Cinelin, Duralin, Fabrikoid, Fiberloid, Herculoid, Isinglass, Keratol, Nitrol and Nitron, Nixonoid and Nixon CN, Pyralin, Pyroxylin, and Textiloid. Tradenames specific to imitation ivory often included that word, such as Ivorine, French Ivory, Ivorie Parisienne, celluloid ivory and vegetable ivory.
Characteristics: very lightweight; can have mold marks or not; can be solid, hollow or laminated. Can be pretty much any color, including transparent or black (though sometimes black paint was applied).
Testing: It is said that the application of heat to celluloid will produce an odor of camphor (mothballs); however due to the extremely low resistance of this material to heat, it is debatable whether the risk of damage is worth it. It is safer to become familiar with the other characteristics of true celluloid than to risk deforming a piece by applying enough heat to generate any odor. Also, the presence of paint or any type of glaze on the surface of the celluloid will act as a barrier to the generation of the camphor smell although not – unfortunately – to deformation by temperature.
2. Casein plastic
Casein was invented in the 1890s and was made from milk protein. It is a thermoset plastic. One trade name, Galalith, derives from the Greek words for milk (gala) and stone (lith).. literally “milk-stone” or “stone made of milk”. Unlike celluloid, casein plastics are not flammable. However, its use in larger articles was limited because it cannot be molded; it must be cut or carved, thus its use was effectively restricted to small things like jewelry and buttons rather than, say, boxes, brushes, combs, etc. Like celluloid it could imitate ivory, bone, tortoise shell, coral, amber, etc. Casein was also sometimes used as one of the layers in certain laminated tortoise shell pieces such as small boxes or cigarette cases, making identification even more of a challenge.
Trademarked names for casein plastics include Ameroid, Casolith, Dorcasine, Galalith and Kyloid.
Characteristics: Can range from as light as celluloid to a bit heavier. Does NOT have mold marks because it could not be molded; thus it can be either solid or laminated but never hollow.
Testing: Application of hot water will produce a sour-milk or wet-wool smell. Many Deco era necklaces were made of carved galalith beads, and so great care must be taken not to damage the stringing if testing such an an article with hot water. The noted German jewelry maker Jakob Bengel particularly favored the combination of Galalith and chrome for his “machine age” 1930s designs.
3. Phenolic plastics (aka “Bakelite”)
The phenolics are thermoset plastics, i.e., once formed into an object that’s the shape in which it remains. The formula itself was developed in the very early 1900s and can be subdivided into “molded” and “cast” categories. None of the phenolics could be made in plain white.
The molded type came first, around 1913, and is still in use today; although both types are heat-resistant, this form is slightly more so. The molded phenolics are most often seen in the darker shades of browns, deep reds/maroons, and black. The somewhat unpurified formula used in this type of phenolic prevents delicate pastel and other light tints from being produced. It is almost always opaque (never translucent) and vintage pieces are often seen in mottled or swirled colors with black or very dark brown being one of them. Trademarked names for the molded phenolics include: Aqualite, Arcolite, Arochems, Bakelite, Beckopol, Catapond, Catalin, Celoron, Coltrock and Coltwood, Consoweld , Gala, Marblette, Plaskon and Tego. Other non-patented names include crystle, formica (no, really!), indur, lamorok, and many more.
The cast phenolics appeared around 1930 but pretty much disappeared by 1950. Cast phenolic pieces were relatively thick and could be produced in all colors including pastels and white. It could be opaque, translucent or transparent. Swirl effects were common. Sometimes a single piece will show both transparent areas and swirly translucent ones. Not quite as heat resistant as the molded phenolics but is still a thermoset; for example, the top of an early 1940s radio cabinet made of a cast phenolic may be blistered from heat buildup while one of the same age but made from a molded phenolic will probably be fine). Cast-phenolic items were expensive to produce because they could not be molded. Instead, each piece had to be hand-cast and then carved, buffed and polished. This high-cost manufacturing method ultimately led to its demise. Trademarked names for cast phenolics include: Aquapearl, Bakelite, Catalin, crystle, joanite, Marblette, opalon, plyophen, Prystal and textalite. An especially interesting cast phenolic was Bios Glace, made by Lisner in 1935, whereby a clear cast phenolic would be poured over a wood piece placed into a mold. The plastic would coat the wood and solidify into a thick glaze which – being a thermoset – could be then polished to a glass-like brilliance which also acted as a magnifier to bring out the grain of the wood.
Characteristics: The molded phenolics can, obviously, have mold marks whereas the cast items cannot. See above for the colors per type. Produces a low ‘clunk’ sound when tapped, especially if two phenolic pieces are tapped together.
Testing: The classic method for testing for bakelite plastics has been to use a small amount of Simichrome polish on an inconspicuous area; if the swab or other applicator comes away with a yellow or golden color, the item tests positive. However, Simichrome can now be hard to find in many areas of the country and the other testing standby (Formula 409 cleaner) no longer works after Dow changed its chemical formula years ago. Fortunately we can now test by using the widely available LA Awesome Cleaner (original formula) which is available in almost any of the “dollar stores”. A tiny amount applied to a cotton swab will perform the same test that Simichrome and the old 409 used to do.
4. Cellulostics (cellulose acetate)
“Cellulostic” is a great word to describe cellulose acetate which is a thermoplastic frequently confused with – and misidentified as – celluloid. Created as a nonflammable alternative to the risky original celluloid, it appeared on the market in the 1930s and was often made in bright, saturated loud “neon” colors although it can also be transparent and can imitate the same natural materials that celluloid could. Although it is not flammable, it has its own special bete noir: it becomes grossly distorted if exposed to water for any length of time. The surface also has a tendency to crack and craze as a result of exposure to light over time. There were some design challenges too, because it has to be molded rather than cast or carved. The collectible Lea Stein jewelry pieces were made of celluloid (cellulose nitrate) at first but then shifted to using cellulose acetate as the base material, resulting in quite a few pieces being offered as “celluloid” when in fact they are this “cellulostic” instead.
Trademarked names include: Bakelite C.A. (the C.A. designating cellulose acetate), Cinelin, Clearsite, gemloid, joda c/a, Lumarith, macite, midlon a, nixonite and nixon c.a., Plastacele, pyra-shell, Tec, Tenite, and vuepak. Lumarith, Tenite and Plastacele were the ‘big three’ wellknown names in cellulose acetate manufacturing.
Characteristics: Extremely similar to celluloid in weight, appearance, and ‘faux’ applications. Again like celluloid it can be solid or hollow BUT unlike celluloid it cannot be carved or cast; it must be molded. Thus, mold marks can often be present. Unlike celluloid, though, it can appear in bright Crayola-type colors whereas celluloid (with exception of red) is more muted.
Testing: I would hesitate to test a cellulostic by using hot water, because although theoretically it should take more than just a few seconds of contact with H2O to damage the piece, why take the risk? It is safer to rely on other factors such as color (a celluloid would never be seen in neon green, screaming magenta, hot pink, etc) and weight (celluloid is noticeably lighter). However, if a heat test for odor is used, cellulostics produce a vinegar-y smell due to the presence of acetic acid.
5. Urea plastics (urea formaldehyde)
Not widely recognized in its own right, a urea-based plastic under the name Beetle was introduced in 1929 by American Cyanamid. It is generally considered to be a thermoset plastic. The idea behind its development was to compete with celluloid on safety (urea is non-flammable) and with the cellulostics in color range. Urea plastics colors are bright but not loud and strident as the cellulostics were; and in fact it can hold color better over time than any of the celluloids. It could also be made transparent and also with chips of color on white. Urea-plastic faux pearls are made in Asia even today. Unfortunately this material is super-lightweight and very “cheap” in hand-feel, and because it was also relatively brittle it could not be used for intricate carved-look designs. Another entry into the “nobody’s perfect” plastics sweepstakes as far as jewelry is concerned, although ironically it is widely used in manufacturing applications ranging from laminates to paper to fabrics; some sources list it as a thermoplastic because in its liquid form it can be used as an adhesive.
Tradenames for jewelry applications include Arodures, Bakelite Urea, Beckamine, Beetle, Catalin Urea, Daka-Ware, Gala, Insurok, Lamicoid, Lauxite, Plaskon urea, Plyamine, Rhonite, and Richelain.
Characteristics: As light or even lighter weight than celluloid, and even more brittle. It lacks the waxiness of celluloid and the caseins. No grain lines. Can take on any color or combination thereof, or be transparent. Urea plastics are probably the culprit when people remark on “cheap plastic junk jewelry”!
Testing: Because it can stand on either side of the thermoset/thermoplastic line depending on its exact formulation, no generally accepted test for urea plastics in jewelry appears to be agreed upon.
6. Acrylic plastics
These are generally referred to under the catch-all name of “lucite” and rather surprisingly are in the thermoplastic category which means they are subject to heat damage although it must in fairness be said, not nearly as easily as the earlier ones. Lucite itself was developed in the mid-late 1930s by Dupont and was first advertised as such in June 1937. A designer’s dream material, it was lightweight; could be produced in a huge range of opaque, translucent and transparent forms; could be molded, carved, layered, and painted; and was remarkably easy to curve. This last property led to its widespread use on warplane windows and canopies instead of the much heavier glass. Indeed, clear acrylic can do a marvelous job of imitating glass in jewelry. It should be remembered, however, that not all transparent plastics are acrylics; celluloid, cellulose acetate, urea plastics, polystyrene and even an extremely rare type of Bakelite can also be found in that form.
Characteristics: Heavier than celluloid and the cellulostics, but lighter than the phenolics/bakelite. It has an extremely smooth surface and is room temperature to the touch (glass will be cold or at least cool to the touch). It also produces a ‘clunk’ sound when tapped but not quite as low a sound as does a phenolic; it can be very frustrating to tell the difference!
Testing: Because acrylics are extremely heat-resistant thermoplastics they usually produce no odor when heat is applied unless it is by hot point (never recommended for anything!) or boiling temperature water, in which case it might – or might not – smell slightly sweet. They are usually sufficiently recognizable without this form of testing.
Acrylic plastics have been marketed under the following names, among others: Acrylan, Acryloid, Cadco, Chrystalix, Fiberfil, Gala, Gering MMRW, Joda Acrylic, Lucite, Midlom M, Plexiglass, and Rhoplexes. Lucite and Plexiglass are far and away the most recognizable and both have evolved into being lower-case ‘household names’ although lucite is more commonly used in reference to jewelry and plexiglass when referring to larger articles.
So how important is it to know, when looking at a piece of vintage plastic jewelry, exactly what it is made of? In my opinion the primary consideration should be the overall quality of the piece itself, including the condition. I love old celluloid but have passed up quite a few beautifully detailed and painted old pieces because the photos clearly showed a “diseased” or a damaged area (a new blog entry specifically on celluloid here in the near future). If you fall in love with a brooch does it really matter whether it was made of celluloid, casein, or a phenolic?
If dating is important to you (the age kind, not the social kind!) then it may help to know the category of plastic but because there was considerable overlap – other than, perhaps, with the caseins – the plastic itself isn’t determinative. You’d need to add style, findings, and construction methods into the mix in order to get a clearer idea of its age.
In practical real-world terms the type of plastic is most useful in order to determine its care (including identification or testing methods) and for what I call “expectation of value”. In other words, given four late-1930s plain bangle bracelets made of differing materials – celluloid, cellulose acetate, a molded phenolic, and an acrylic – I would expect the one made of cellulose acetate to exhibit the greatest amount of vintage wear, and the ones made of phenolic and acrylic the least, simply by nature of what they are made of. My willingness to pay X amount of dollars for any of them would be influenced at least in part by my expectation of what condition it should be in, given its material + age.
You might also simply like (or hate) the look or feel of specific kinds of plastic. “Moonglow lucite” is a distinctive form and very popular with some collectors while others think it just screams “tacky pearl-wannabe”. Ditto with the plastic pearls found on quite a few multi-strand necklaces made in Hong Kong, Japan and Germany during the 1950s – most people either love them or hate them. Reverse carved/painted and confetti acrylics, carved/molded phenolics vs simple color blocks, painted celluloid vs. celluloid set with rhinestones …. the list goes on and on. A veritable cornucopia of fascinating plastics to choose from – obviously, Mr. McGuire (in “The Graduate”) was right, even though clearly there is more than “one word” for them!