Vintage plastic jewelry 101: science meets style

bakelite necklace
Molded Plastic Earrings
Molded Plastic Earrings

So you found an awesome vintage accessory like plastic brooch, bracelet, or something more utilitarian like a plastic kitchen tool, radio, drawer handle or knob. While you can easily test it to determine if it is Bakelite, what if it’s not? What exactly is it made of? Here are just a few of the many vintage plastics and resins you may find along with examples and descriptions to help you determine what you have.

Celluloid Chain with wood acorns and leaves

First, there are two very basic types of plastic. They are Thermoset and Thermoplastic. For our purposes, and not to get too technical, the big difference is Thermoset plastic can only be “set” once, while Thermoplastic can be softened or melted down and “reset” multiple times.

Both Bakelite and Catalin are examples of Thermoset. On the other hand Celluloid, Casein or Galaith, and Acrylic are examples of Thermoplastic.

Celluloid was used widely in the late 1800’s to early 1900’s.  Celluloid is made with camphor and smells like camphor or Vicks Vapor Rub. When heated it will smell like pine sap or mothballs. Never use alcohol on celluloid as it will dissolve it. Celluloid is thinner than other plastics and prone to cracking or yellowing over time. Another term used for Celluloid is French Ivory.

Galalith or Casein is sometimes called French Bakelite. It is made of milk, and smells like burnt milk when heated or run under hot water. It was popular starting in the late 1800’s and was still produced until the 1960’s when it was discontinued.

Clear Lucite beaded necklace

Acrylic starts out as a clear thermoplastic that can be colored. Lucite is a trademarked name given to acrylic by DuPont while Plexiglass is a similar material trademarked by Rohm & Haas. Acrylic has no smell when heated, is lighter in weight that Casein or Bakelite and can be cheaply and easily manufactured.

Lesser known plastics used for jewelry production include Polystyrene and Cellulose Acetate. Polystyrene is the same plastic used in most yogurt containers, as well as styrofoam. It’s flammable and can be used as a solid or foam plastic. Cellulose Acetate if often used to make buttons. Cellulose is made from wood fibers and is mixed with a variety of chemicals to create a form of plastic.

So now that you have a bit of knowledge regarding plastics, dig through your stash or go out and find some wonderful vintage pieces and let’s see what you’ve got.

Vintage Acrylic Ring
Vintage Acrylic Ring

The best is yet to come! Pam, Vintage Renude

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