Among all the plastics used in vintage jewelry, celluloid usually claims pride of place in the category of intricate detailing – and in particular, the pieces produced during the first half of the 20th century in Japan. Why and how did this come to be so?
The actual process for creating celluloid provides part of the answer. There are only three basic ingredients: cellulose (obtained from cotton lint or tissue paper), acid (nitric acid and sulfuric acid) and a solvent (camphor). The reason why Japan became such a huge player in the celluloid industry lies in the solvent ingredient, camphor, which is produced from the essential oil distilled from the Cinnamonum camphorum tree. Nowhere in the world were these found in greater abundance at the turn of the century than on the island of Formosa (now Taiwan). Formosa was then part of the Japanese Empire and when the fledgling celluloid industry took off like the proverbial rocket in the late 1800s, Japan found itself with a world monopoly on what was suddenly a very hot commodity. They lost no time in establishing their own home-based industry as well as becoming the largest camphor supplier to the rest of the world. The first two celluloid manufacturing plants (Sakai Celluloid and Japan Celluloid Artificial Silk) were opened in 1908. Over the next ten years a plethora of new companies appeared and competition was fierce. The largest dozen eventually merged to form Dainippon Celluloid in 1919.
The “big three” celluloid manufacturing nations in the early 1900s were the USA (particularly in New Jersey), Germany, and Japan who had celluloid’s critical ingredient in their own backyard, so to speak. They had a brief trade/price war with Germany in the 1920s which the latter country lost resoundingly, with the result that Germany withdrew from the celluloid-sales arena. This left Japan with a huge market share and America remained its only real competition in manufacturing finished items.
A mind-boggling range of items was made from celluloid during the first half of the century, ranging in style from Victorian (and there were indeed many actual Victorian-era celluloid items) to Art Deco to whimsical. The ubiquitous Scottish terrier (Scottie) brooches were produced in huge quantities starting in the 1930s, inspired by FDR’s famous pooch “Fala”, by both American and Japanese jewelry manufacturers. However, it is in their floral motif jewelry items – brooches, bracelet, dress clips, earrings, and pendants – that the talent of the Japanese celluloid jewelry artisans really shines.
Creating the Jewelry
Because celluloid is a thermoplastic it can be reshaped more than once via the application of heat and pressure, and being a nonporous material it can also be painted. The Japanese firms excelled in not only the intricacy of the molds used for the secondary shaping of the “stock” celluloid material – originally formed into blocks, rods or sheets – but also in the care taken in the decorative painting of their floral design pieces. Many of them, like these delicately tinted floral studies below, include a lace-like border surrounding the bouquet of flowers, buds, and leaves. Chrysanthemums (an Imperial flower), roses, daisies, narcissus and forget-me-nots are frequently seen. (The triangular brooch is marked Japan; the oval brooch is marked Occupied Japan.)
Because each piece of jewelry was individually hand painted, the color versions can and do vary from the subtle to and entirely different look. For instance, an entire collection could be built around all the different color variations of the late 1930s-1940s chrysanthemum basket brooch below, which has been found in – as of this writing – at least fourteen different versions in which the colors of the basket, leaves, and single and pompom mums vary.
Japanese celluloid jewelry is usually seen in one of two forms: either a uniform solid color “as manufactured”, or as the ivory/cream as-manufactured base color shown below that was then hand-painted and usually lightly glazed. The glaze can vary from a subtle barely-there sheen to one with a definite pearlized effect. (True “pearlescent” celluloid is a different process and is part of the materials-manufacturing cycle rather than the materials-finishing one.)
Making celluloid was not only a dangerous process (nitric acid is highly explosive) but a tricky one, especially when it came to creating colored materials. Celluloid in its natural state is clear but can be colored by soaking the initially formed material in whatever chemical solution is needed to produce the desired color. The starter material had to be absolutely clean because even the tiniest trace of oil .. from even so much as a fingerprint .. could alter the result that came from the coloring agent. Most colors were produced by a specific chemical (black from silver nitrite, yellow and orange from potassium bichromate, etc) but red was more labor intensive: The material had to be cleaned off with nitric acid (always nasty stuff to work with, or around!) before being soaked in an aniline red dye. Because the extra step made the red articles more expensive to produce, not as many of them were made compared to other colors. The red rose dress clip shown below (marked Japan on the reverse) is an example of this color.
It is said that Japanese celluloid jewelry tends to have a more shiny finish than similar pieces made in the USA or Europe. I think it is less a matter of shine than of surface feel: the Japan-made pieces often feel “silkier” or waxier to the touch, especially those floral pieces similar in style to the two below.
There are also two distinct “weights” of Japanese celluloid brooches, according to the thickness of the material that was used in the mold; the more substantial pieces are 3mm-4 mm thick at their thinnest edges, while the lighter and thinner ones are only 1mm thick at the same location. The two flower basket brooches shown in the previous sections represent both weights, the solid ivory one being the thinner/lighter type and the decorated one the thicker/heavier. They weigh 5 grams and 10 grams respectively; quite a difference! By the way, the type has nothing to do with whether a piece was painted or not; a decorated version – not yet photographed – of the lightweight brooch is of identical weight and thickness to the plain one shown above.
Their marking methods also differ. On the thinner pieces the ‘Japan’ mark is found either on a one-piece pinback (silver metal, often oxidized) or ink-stamped on the back of the brooch itself. On the other hand, the thicker brooches often have ‘Japan’ actually impressed into the celluloid, usually somewhere near the center; it can also appear as an inkstamp instead, or on a one-piece pinback if that was used. These brooches were thick enough to accommodate an impressed Japan marking, whereas the thinner styles were not.
versus this one:
Which of these brooch styles is the older? None of the standard reference books address that issue although they all pretty much agree that the floral styles discussed here date from the 1930s and 1940s. I personally believe that the thicker ones are older circa 1930s; this theory is bolstered by my recent discovery of two identically painted versions of the thinner basket, differing only in that one is marked Japan and other marked Occupied Japan (thus made between mid-1945 and late 1952). Incidentally, the two flower basket brooches are NOT identical, although at first look they may seem to be. They have subtle but definite mold differences that close examination will reveal.
By the way, it is very common to see, under 10X jewelers magnification, within the recesses of an intricate design what appear to be minute specks of dirt that are not able to be removed by brushing or blowing-out. These dirt/dust motes settled on the piece while the paint and/or the final glaze was drying, and thus are not removable. Jewelry manufacturing plants of the day were not sterile “cleanrooms” and there was inevitably some level of material in the air at any given time. Most of the time these specks are not very noticable to the naked eye and if found under magnification they are not considered a deterrent unless present in extreme quantity. However, if any warping, splitting or cracking of a piece is seen, or any areas that are stained a brown or orange color not part of the original decoration, that is evidence of either decomposition from within or damage from an external source. Such items should be avoided because their condition will only continue to deteriorate.
“Carved” versus “Molded”
Vintage celluloid jewelry is often described as “carved”, especially the floral items. When it comes to celluloid this is not usually accurate because the majority of such jewelry was molded (casein plastic, however, was indeed carved because it physically could not be molded). However, the intricacy of the molds was so successful at duplicating the fine carving of the antique ivory and horn pieces that it was intended to imitate, that the techically incorrect description “carved celluloid” has become common usage and there was certainly some hand-trimming of each piece after it was removed from the mold and before it began to be painted.
Each brooch will differ in the amount of clear-through piercing that it may or may not contain, even within the identical mold design. In fact it’s more common to see translucent or transparent areas in such places (see areas near the stems in the plain ivory basket) than to find them all “cut clear through”. These brooches were not produced via today’s exacting computer-controlled assembly lines, and so individual variations not only exist but help to make each one unique.
“Japan” versus “Occupied Japan”
It’s quite possible that you may see two versions of the identical jewelry item, one marked “Japan” and the other “Occupied Japan”. Any item marked Occupied Japan was made between late 1945 and April 1952; but that does not necessarily mean that the other brooch was NOT also made during that same time period.
This is because only items that were intended for export were required to be marked Occupied Japan; items that were produced for sale within Japan did not need to be so marked. The intention of the regulation was not – as some may think – to insensitively or cruelly call attention to the painful results of the war; it was designed as a marketing strategy to help the country rebuild its shattered economy. Japan needed to re-establish its position as a manufacturing and trading nation on the world stage as quickly as possible and the Western world was its best potential customer. Unfortunately there were many consumers, especially in the United States, who were unable to separate the citizenry and domestic industries of Japan from the recent military conflict and were determined to boycott any item from that nation. However, an item marked Occupied Japan was apt to elicit a very different and more positive reaction, or at the very least offset what was (IMHO narrow-minded) a negative knee-jerk emotional response on the part of potential buyers. By the time the regulation expired in mid-1952, Japan’s economy was on its way to recovery – helped in no small part by the effects of this particular marketing effort.
Not every item that was intended for export was marked Occupied Japan, although the majority of them were if they intended for the American market. Items that were intended for shipment to European countries were probably more likely to bear a “Made in Japan” or “Japan” designation, or to be not marked at all.
Marked Japan vs Unmarked
Regardless of era, items produced for the domestic Japanese market, rather than for export, were not required to be marked ‘Japan’ although considering Japan’s overall export numbers during the first two-thirds of the 20th century it certainly seems as though every product made there was destined to go elsewhere! There are many vintage Japanese-made celluloid jewelry items that are unmarked, either because of very small size (such as the hundreds of thousands of charms) or simply a decision on the part of the manufacturer to instead put the Made in Japan designation on a paper hangtag, or the brooch or earring card, or inside of the box. In most cases those items are long gone today, and we’re left with an unmarked piece whose origin can only be evaluated by materials, level of workmanship, decoration characteristics, or by hopefully finding an identical piece that was actually marked. Rings in particular seem to have a 50/50 chance of being marked Japan or not!
Were the 1950s “Lightweights” Made in Japan?
My recent blog post about the sub-category of vintage celluloid jewelry known as Bubbleite, Featherlite, Featherlight, Lite-Wate, et al., addressed the question of whether these were Japanese products. The answer is that overall we don’t seem to know for sure. Occasionally a piece bearing these characteristics appears for sale and is marked Japan. If the marking is on an earring clipback, we still don’t know whether only the clipback was made there, or the celluloid itself. It’s unusual to even find any of these pieces signed with the actual tradename, which makes them prime targets for confusion with early 1920s and 1930s pieces and being misrepresented for sale as such. Unless some items appear bearing one of these marketing names and the designation “Japan”, there’s just no way to tell. They may indeed be Japanese celluloid but they equally well might have been made in the USA.
Care of Vintage Celluloid
Celluloid by nature has the capacity to soften/be deformed by heat. Application of sufficient heat will cause celluloid to emit the smell of camphor. But sources differ as to how much heat is safe to apply without risking damage to the item. According to Keith Lauer and Julie Robinson in their Celluloid Collectors Reference and Value Guide (1999):
When celluloid is exposed to temperatures higher than 140 degrees Fahrenheit, the structure of the cellulose nitrate and camphor molecules begins to change. The evaporation of camphor molecules is believed to leave cellulose nitrate molecules in concentrated sites, and this accelerates crystal formation. Since celluloid is a thermoplastic, the shape of finished articles is affected by extreme temperature. If exposed to temperatures above 140 degrees, it will begin to lose form..
The crystallization of cellulose nitrate is a deterioration process that causes the material to become brittle and crumble; it is commonly called “disease” among collectors. There is no remedy for it and it will only spread. It will also contaminate other celluloid articles that may come into direct contact with it.
Unfortunately many sources give instructions for doing an odor test on celluloid by bringing it into contact with water “just below the boiling point” to see if the camphor molecules will – as described above – evaporate and emit the odor. Even hot tap water is risky: Many domestic hot water taps, mine included, are capable of delivering water of 140 degrees or more. Mine tops out at 149F! Any time that a hot water test is done to a piece of celluloid, the item is put at risk for irreversible damage. It is far safer to rely on other factors to determine whether an item is celluloid or another plastic. (See this post for an overview of the characteristics of vintage plastics.)
It goes without saying that a hot pin test, once widely recommended as a testing method for various materials including plastics, should never be done on anything suspected to be made of celluloid; the flammable nitric acid within the material will burn and the piece will be permanently damaged.
Never use a chemical cleaning agent on celluloid; this includes common detergents and “natural” citric-acid based cleaners such as GooGone, LA Awesome, etc. In most cases surface dirt can be removed by gentle cleaning with a soft toothbrush, either dry or with plain cool water. A very mild soap such as would be suitable for an infant is the strongest cleanser that should ever be used. Do not immerse in water any items that have metal components, and be sure to dry cleaned pieces immediately, gently and thoroughly.
If you need to remove glue residue left from an old price sticker, a light application of a pure vegetable oil (canola is a good choice) will soften the glue. It won’t be instant and you may have to rub it a bit, but it will work.
Common personal-care products such as perfume, cologne and nail polish remover all include solvents that will irreversibly damage celluloid on contact. Be aware of this if you tend to put on jewelry first and spritz perfume or cologne on yourself afterward; you’ll probably find yourself wondering where the heck those ugly brown spots on your pretty pale pink celluloid earrings came from, or those orange streaks that appeared on the inside of your pale green floral bangle bracelet.
Do not wrap or store celluloid jewelry in any kind of plastic – especially those little mini plastic bags with pressure-closed tops. Acid-free plain white tissue paper is your best bet. But since these lovely vintage plastics are so unique and pretty… why not simply wear them regularly instead? 😉