Within the genre of vintage celluloid jewelry from the first half of the 20th century, there exists a group known to collectors as Featherlite, Featherweight and Bubbleite (often misspelled as Bubblelite, with two Ls rather than one). As their names suggest, when compared with other celluloid items of similar size and age they weigh considerably less than their peers.
These “lightweights” can be quite confusing to potential buyers in several respects, not least because they are often described by sellers as being of an earlier decade than they actually are. This isn’t entirely the seller’s fault; many of these later designs were blatant copies of pieces made in the 1930s or even 1920s, with such subtle differences that a casual observer wouldn’t even think to closely check. However, these lightweight pieces date from the 1950s; they are definitely not Art Deco era jewelry. In what ways can they be differentiated from the originals?
The obvious answer is via weight, but that is no help when buying online or even in a shop if there is no similar celluloid item with which to do an in-hand comparison. When there is such a benchmark, the difference is dramatic (at least in terms of celluloid, which is lightweight by nature!) and can be anywhere between one-half to a full gram or more.
Color and Finishing
The majority of the significantly lighter-weight celluloid jewelry items – which I’ll collectively call the Lightweights in this article – were made in what we’d today call a “shabby chic” finish: a matte or even slightly textured white paint over the naturally-clear celluloid base material. This is in marked contrast to the smooth and somewhat waxy handfeel of earlier celluloid jewelry. The bracelet shown below is a perfect example of this style which is colloquially referred to as “Wedding Cake Celluloid”. Often these “carved” (actually molded) white pieces were also studded with clear rhinestones – a very bling’d wedding cake for sure! The presence of a quantity of rhinestones will naturally make the piece seem somewhat heavier than its natural weight, but it will still be lighter than if made from “normal” celluloid material.
This brooch-and-earrings set also aptly illustrates why the all-white pieces acquired their nickname of “wedding cake” celluloid. This particular mold was very amenable to the addition of rhinestones into the center of the flowers; for example, the brooch could accomodate 21 of them if all of the ‘cups’ were to be filled!
Another finish was the ‘antiqued’ style, with a base color of off-white, cream/ecru, or sometimes even a pale grey-blue, with highlights in a darker shade. This paint technique somewhat resembles old sepiatone photographs. The set below is an excellent example of this finishing style which also is fairly often seen with rhinestone accents.
A third matte paint finish was the plain cream/ivory/light beige illustrated by this necklace. The finish is just slightly less textured than the white, but still not even approaching a semi-gloss. This colorway was intended to simulate ivory or bone. These were sometimes “bling’d” but not as often as the white or antiqued versions.
The necklaces seem to have a couple of notable consistencies. Their chains often look as if they don’t quite match the rest of the necklace, in either material or color. Another quirk of the link chain versions is that although they have a J-hook on one end they almost never have a clasp ring on the other! Apparantly they were made that way, and since the chain links are large enough to easily accommodate the hook it doesn’t reallly matter – but you’d think they could have put just one more little ring into the item manufacturing budget??! I’m sure that over the years some owners of these necklaces simply went ahead and added one on their own.
Here’s where it’s very easy to get tripped up and accidentally date a Lightweight as older than it actually is. The similarities to earlier pieces are startling and differences can sometimes be tricky to spot. Compare the central station on the Lightweight necklace to this standard-decoration celluloid brooch marked Japan. Many people would say they are from the same source but on careful inspection two distinct differences can be found. (Do you see them? If not, the answer is at the end of this article. *) The size also differs: The brooch is 1 1/2” diameter while the necklace station measures 1 1/4”. Therefore the two pieces were definitely not produced from the same mold design.
Marks, Trademarks, Brand Names, etc
Although “Featherlight”, “Featherlite”, and “Bubbleite” are not included in the list of trademarked brand names in Lauer & Robinson’s Celluloid Collector’s Reference and Value Guide, we know that at least several of them definitely were: Bubbleite (yes, the correct spelling only has one L), Featherweights, and Lite-Wate.
Update, December 2020: A fascinating comment from a reader (see below) has raised the real possibility that some of these pieces were not made from a plastic, but instead carved from a mineral called sepiolite! I think the most telling aspect is that at least one example was determined by a professional examination to indeed be of organic origin rather than a plastic. On the other hand, I see that the Bubbleite ad says their pieces come in different colors – and I don’t think I have ever seen a piece of meerschaum/sepiolite that wasn’t white, off-white, or cream, with or without any brownish discoloration. However, because sepiolite is often used to thicken paint, it probably would take coloration quite well. A fascinating theory!
Shortly after this blog post first appeared, I was contacted by Treasures From Yesterday who had in their files two vintage ads for this type of jewelry and I am extremely pleased to be able to include them in this revision. Both of them show registered trademark brands. The first ad is from 1956, for “Lite-Wate” and mentions the fact that their designs are made both with and without rhinestones.
The second ad is from 1957 and is for Bubbleite (this is how I discovered that the common spelling, with two Ls, is actually incorrect). Note the amazing range of colors in which it was produced: light blue, yellow, champagne, coral, turquoise, red, navy, lavender, avocado, pink, black and white.
I am indebted to Pat of Treasures From Yesterday and Researching Costume Jewelry for sharing these vintage ads.
Update: This later blog post contains important information regarding possible mis-identification of some of these pieces as Coro.
Update, 2019: The Treasures from Yesterday web site no longer exists; the Researching Costume Jewelry resource has been incorporated into the Costume Jewelry Collectors International site. However, please note that they no longer respond to individual inquiries.
As for the other names within the Lightweights genre, it’s possible that those may not have been actually copyrighted but instead were used informally as brand or even “line” names for marketing by their manufacturers. Unless or until the other names are discovered as signed pieces, their status as actual tradenames remains unclear. Most of the Lightweights were not signed but probably originally came with paper hangtags instead; however, the earrings shown in the sepia-tone parure illustrated above are marked “Featherweight” on the clipbacks. I have also seen the occasional pair of earrings with the clip or screw back marked Japan, which inevitably begs the question:
Made in Japan, or Not??
This is a tough question to answer definitively! There is some level of assumption – which may or may not have a basis in fact – that these 1950s Lightweights (in general) were made in Japan. But we all know that seller-description information often gets picked up and “recycled”, especially on eBay! The question is, was the item being described as Japanese truly a Featherlite, Bubbleite, etc piece? Unless items start turning up marked both ‘Japan’ and a particular one of the relevant brand names, there’s no way to know for sure. Or perhaps some brands were made in Japan and others in the USA (the only two countries still producing cellulose nitrate jewelry in any quantity by the 1950s). In the meantime, it’s best to err on the side of caution by wording any description of these items as “possibly Japanese-made”.
EDITED ON 20 JULY 2012 TO ADD: I acquired a signed Japan celluloid brooch of the same design as one of the Lite-Wate brooches seen in their vintage ad above; it is the single very dark brooch (the one that appears to have an “open spokes” border, which is in fact interlinked circles) positioned to the left of the ad text . It was subsequently sold via my Etsy shop.
There are also some marked Japanese celluloid brooches that are considerably lighter than other styles (such as the two hand painted brooches shown above) but are not in the commonly seen single-color paint “finishes” for the Lightweights being discussed here. Do those brooches belong to the Lightweights genre? They certainly qualify on the basis of weight alone. However, most collectors of this type of celluloid jewelry consider the capitalized genre names to refer only to the matte-painted designs (with and without rhinestones).
Caring for the Lightweights
Although the Lightweights do belong to the celluloid “family” they are not exactly the same in terms of chemical composition. As a result they are not only considerably lighter than normal celluloid but they are also softer and more brittle. The brittleness makes it more prone to damage from physical shocks; drop it on the floor, or whack the bracelet against a granite countertop, and it’s more likely to crack or chip than a classic celluloid. The softness factor means it’s more easily damaged by heat sources. Contact with water is, in general, probably not a great idea either; if cleaning is needed, a dry soft brush – and patience – is the best bet.
The main thing to remember when searching for celluloid jewelry and encountering any of the Lightweights – and many will probably be not described specifically as such – is that they were NOT made in the 1920s or 1930s. They are of course vintage, having made in the 1950s, but they are not and should not be represented as Art Deco era jewelry. Enjoy them in their own right for what they really are: One of the very last chapters in the story of vintage celluloid adornments!
(*Answer: The six large flowers in the Featherlite necklace medallion are set closer together; their petals are almost touching each other, whereas in the Japanese brooch there is a row of tiny background flowers between them. Also the necklace’s bouquet extends farther out into the background ‘panel’ than it does on the Japanese brooch.)