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Lucite Jewelry – Valuable And Collectible Plastic From The Past
Lucite jewelry was very popular in the first half of the 20th century.
Brought to the market during depression and war as a cheaper alternative to more expensive jewelry, making it possible for everybody to adorn themselves in beautiful jewelry.
Today vintage Lucite jewelry is highly priced as collectible items, some worth tens of thousands of dollars. But what IS Lucite, and why did it become so popular?
What Lucite is:
You know it by other names, like Acrylic glass, Plexiglas and maybe by its chemical formula Polymethyl methacrylate (PMMA).
The first Lucite was made by the Du Ponts Chemical company in 1928, and was launched on the marked in 1933 under the trademark Plexiglass.
Lucite is a transparent thermoplastic that have the qualities of both glass and plastic. It has the clarity of glass but a density of half of that of glass, making it very lightweight, but a bit heavier than plastic. It is inexpensive, easy to work with and model and easy to carve and use as inlays. It is crystal clear in its original form, but can be colored into every color imagined from opaque to transparent.
Lucite was invented in 1928, but did not make its debut on the jewelry and fashion world before after the second world war, when it out maneuvered its predecessor Bakelite.
Today Lucite and Bakelite names are used interchangeable, but they are not the same, so, before we continue with the history of Lucite jewelry, let's take a look at Bakelite.
Bakelite was invented by Dr Leo Baelceland in the late 19th century. It was the first synthetic plastic. Beautiful, limitless and very durable, it was used for many things, among them jewelry. Bakelite was a thermoset material, which means that once heated and shaped, it could not be reshaped.
Because of its versatility it soon got the nickname -The material with 1000 uses-. When the license went out in 1927 the Cataline Corporation started to mass produce Bakelite under the name Cataline. During the depression in the 1930s Cataline became hugely popular on the jewelry market. People could no longer afford to buy precious jewelry, and Cateline became the perfect substitute. At a low cost it could be shaped into close to every thing that was desired, even fake diamonds.
Bakelite was the perfect material to make imitations of gemstones, coral, Amber, Ivory and tortoiseshell. Often shaped beautifully and set in metal frames with rhinestones or carved into lovely ornamented beads and bangles, these precious looking jewelry pieces were a huge success.
It was however more expensive than Lucite, and due to this, it was outmaneuvered by Lucite right after the 2.world war.
Cataline stopped producing jewelry from Bakelite in 1942, because of the war and started to produce more needed things, like windshields for planes. After the war new technologies to produce molded plastic was developed like Fiberglass, Vinyl, Acrylic and of course Lucite.
Lucite and the fashion world:
Lucite had the clarity of glass, but was more durable and did not shatter. It was lighter in weight than Bakelite and perfect for big jewelry. In the fashion world its use became limitless, and handbags, purses, shoes accessories and jewelry were made from Lucite in abundance.
It did not yellow over time, like other plastics, and when scratched it could be buffed back to its former state. It could be used to imitate everything within the jewelry world, even diamonds. It could also be etched, carved and embedded, and was light weight and sturdy.
Both Cataline and Lucite was used for costume jewelry, which means that it was made to fit one type of fashion and then be out dated. The materials made it easy to make exquisite looking jewelry in vivid colors shapes and sizes, and cheap enough to ditch when the next season in fashion came.
Popular designer companies like Coro, Pam and Listner designed detailed and lovely Lucite jewelry of high craftmanship. Signed pieces from these companies are today highly valuable collectibles.
The designer company Coro made the Moon Ray Line, where they used glitter in some of the pieces and also a variety of colors. The glitter is referred to as confetti by Lucite jewelry collectors today.
Big and bold confetti necklace, bracelet and earrings sets from Pam, beautifully crafted into leafs, flowers or floating shapes or cabochons embedded in metal was very popular. Some with moon shaped confetti embedded in the Lucite.
Jelly Belly Jewelry:
In the 1940s into the 1960s these beautiful artistically Lucite jewelry pieces was in high demand. With a name sounding like a candy, it is hard to take the name so serious, although there is a plausible reason for it. The jewelry however is absolutely beautiful.
Mostly shaped like pins, these pieces are made from transparent Lucite that has to be clear to earn the name and not colored, although some colored pieces are sold as Jelly Belly jewelry today anyway. The Lucite must be set in metal, most usually sterling silver or vermeil, but also in base metal, due to the war rations on precious metals during the 2. world war.
They are artistically shaped into lovely shapes, like animals, bugs and flowers. What gave them the Jelly belly name was that the body or belly of the shape was made from domed clear Lucite and the rest of the shape of metal often with rhinestones and enamel.
The Jelly Belly pin brooch was pioneered by Trifari in the 1930s and was perfected by the companies head designer Alfred Philippe in the 1940s, with the peak of their production during 1942-1946.
However, because of the high production during the war, I am a bit uncertain about whether they were made of Lucite or Bakelite. The time span fits better with the use of Bakelite, but since these two names are interchangeable today and overlapped in time in the 1930s and 1940s, I cannot say for sure.
They continued to be made into the 1960s, so I believe that later pieces are made from Lucite and not Bakelite.
Types of Lucite:
Because of its transparent quality, Lucite was suitable for multilayer casting, often in several colors or with objects embedded. Lucite comes in mainly 6 versions or effects, like:
Solid color Lucite:
Often used when imitating gemstones and carved or molded. Opaque in color.
Perhaps the most beautiful type of Lucite, looking like it has an inner glow, like a moonstone, and was originally made to imitate such. Often shaped as cabochons, but also other shapes, like leafs, twisted squares and round. Widely used by Coro and Lisner, but also other designers.
Transparent clear or colored Lucite with glitter or chips encased in the Lucite, like Coros Moon line.
Opaque with chunks and bits of Lucite in other colors encased. Looking stone like, like Granite, but comes in several colors.
Have small objects embedded in clear Lucite, like sea shells, flowers or small stones.
Molded Lucite, also called thermoset, can be made from any of the above put is together of several equal looking pieces. Used mainly for necklaces and bracelets, but also for other types of Lucite jewelry.
Jewelry made with Lucite and Bakelite are popular collective items today. Andy Warhole's collections of Bakelite Sold for record prices at Sotherby's, and after his death in 1988, the Bakelite bracelet called -Philadelphia- was sold for 17.000 USD at an auction.
Signed pieces are more expensive than not signed ones, since that means that they are designer jewelry and not just cheap mass produced ones, and that it is true vintage. Vintage Bakelite/cataline and Lucite jewelry is almost as valuable as vintage gemstone jewelry from the same era. So, if you have inherited jewelry from your grand mother, dig it out and have it tested. You may have a valuable collectible item in your hands.
The production of this lovely and special type of jewelry had its peak in the 1930s to 1950s, but pieces of vintage Lucite jewelry from the 1960s and 1970s and even the 1980s are also collectible, so are unusual colors and sets of necklace, bracelet and earrings.
Recycled Bakelite from telephones, radios etc are often carved and sold as vintage Bakelite jewelry. The Bakelite is vintage and original, but it is carved in resent time, and is therefor not as valuable.
Lucite jewelry today:
Lucite jewelry is still made today, but is called Acrylic resin or just Resin. It is a popular material for body jewelry because of its light weight.
Modern looking Lucite jewelry can be bought in department stores and trendy boutiques at fairly reasonable prices.
Lucite is used in the fashion business like never before, and designer Lucite jewelry are made by designers like Alexis Bittar and Christina Luna.
Alexis Bittar reintroduced Lucite to the fashion world in the 1990s, and it is now used like never before, for both costume jewelry and designer jewelry.
Fashion houses like Michael Kors and Prada use Lucite jewelry for their collections from season to season. Pieces of designer jewelry from Lucite can be quite expensive, and are often bonded with crystals or gemstones like Amethyst and sapphire, as well as organic material like pearls.
Lucite jewelry is used by celebrities and fashion models, as well as you and me.
But, how do you know that you have a real Bakelite or Lucite? There are of course tests you can do, although they are not entirely reliable.
Testing you jewelry:
When you test your jewelry, be very careful. Plastic melts easily and tests like with a hot pin or hot water may damage the piece if it is not Bakelite or Lucite.
The tests will give you a result if you have Bakelite jewelry, it will however not determine whether you have Lucite or some other type of plastic.
- The hot pin test:
This is not a recommended test, as it will damage the piece or even make it burn, as some plastic materials are highly flammable. Pieces that have a burnt pin mark will be reduced in value. However, if you still want to do it, you prick the piece with a hot pin. Do this in a place where it is not visible, like the back of the jewelry. If it is Bakelite it will give an acid smell, and will not penetrate the material. This is because Bakelite is thermoset. Lucite and other plastics will get a melted mark.
- Hot water test:
Put the piece in hot water for a few minutes and then smell it. If it gives a distinct smell, it is Bakelite. If it is not Bakelite or Lucite, it may melt though or have its surface finish destroyed. So I would not recommend this test either. Instead you can rub it with your finger until it gets warm. If it is Bakelite you will probably smell it, but not always, so this test is not 100 % reliable.
- The Simichrome test:
If you rub the piece with Simichrome, Bakelite will leave a yellowish to pinkish residue on the cloth. You can also use Simichrome for polishing Bakelite and Lucite to restore their surface finish. You can use 409 to perform the same test. This is likely the less damaging test you can do. It will not work on all colors though.
If you have a piece that you know for sure is Bakelite or Lucite, compare how it feels with the piece you want to test. Lucite should fees smoother than Bakelite and also lighter in weight.
When testing some pieces that is not Bakelite may give positive results on some of the tests, just like some Bakelite pieces will give negative results. Therefor it is necessary to do several of the tests to be sure. Because of the danger of damage to the piece, I would recommend you to have a professional do the testing for you.
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