Vintage Jewelry made from non-precious metals and glass or from plastics, sometimes called costume jewelry, if it’s stylish, is expensive. It doesn’t matter what material is used in it’s manufacture, if it’s cool it’s going to cost money. Plastic vintage and retro jewelry used to be cheap and could usually be found in thrift shops for a few pence. Not any more though. Plastic jewelry is becoming more and more difficult to find and good decorative pieces rarely appear in charity shops anymore.
The first pieces of plastic jewelry I bought were made form a material invented by the Belgian chemist, Dr Leo Baekeland around 1908 that he named Bakelite. Bakelite did not readily conduct electricity or heat and consequently it was used extensively in the manufacture of electrical products. It could be moulded into extravagant shapes, perfect for the period and probably most famously, for the manufacture of radio casings. It was once even considered as a substitute for metal in the production of the one-cent coin.
Lots of jewelry was manufactured in this hard brittle substance, particularly chunky, colourful brooches. Considered to be the first “fashion jewellery”, often copying designer jewelry of the period made from more expensive materials. Manufactured in a variety of colours from the familiar dark brown of early electrical fittings, the reds and greens of vintage picnic sets to the black of kitchen appliances. It was common to find black Bakelite handles or knobs on furniture or coupled with silver, silver plate or chrome – particularly on tea and coffee sets – as decorative knops or handles. It was very popular on dressing tables too, where it made a very good substitute for tortoiseshell.
Although invented much earlier than Bakelite, being a by-product of the photographic processing industry and used, like Bakelite, as a substitute for more expensive materials, Celluloid was highly flammable and did not really come into it’s own until the 1920’s. In 1927 a new non-flammable material, marketed by the Celluloid Corporation under the trade name “Lumarith” was launched. This material could be manufactured in bright, sometimes lurid colours or transparent with inclusions, like coloured or metal flakes. pencil dress New injection moulding techniques meant large quantities of plastic objects could be produced quickly and cheaply, in almost any shape or size. Designers quickly realised the possibilities and enormous quantities of inexpensive plastic jewelry appeared on the market in the USA and Europe in bold colourful designs. Brightly coloured vintage accessories like powder compacts, lipsticks, cigarette cases, sunglasses and even handbags were also manufactured in Celluloid for an eager audience.
In 1933 Lucite or Plexiglas hit the market and was quickly incorporated into jewelry design, often mixed with Celluloid or Bakelite for effect. Brooches made with Lucite overlaid with moulded Celluloid cameos were very popular and easily found in vintage & retro shops today. Some Lucite jewelry, bracelets, brooches and pendants was reverse carved, often with flowers coloured naturalistically to appear lifelike, or left unpainted to resemble etched glass.
Whatever plastic vintage jewellery is made from it is usually exciting and colourful and, if you are fortunate, it can still be bought relatively inexpensively. But it is becoming more and more popular as the young reject antiques. Dark brown furniture, antique silver, old paintings and antique jewelry are not cool. The young are filling their small apartments with light bright vintage and retro, Scandinavian design, colourful contemporary art and retro lighting. They eat and drink from vintage and retro or Ikea tableware and they collect and wear vintage and retro clothing and jewelry. More shops are opening to cater to this new breed of homemaker and prices are rising quickly. But it is still possible to find a bargain – good hunting.