Natural fibers. Remember them? Big buzz words from the late 1970s, they were probably coined in reaction to the tidal waves of polyester, and acrylic that had flooded the market just a few years earlier. I was quick to jump right on that particular bandwagon, and would no more wear a sweater with five percent nylon than I would a dress made of 100% Saran Wrap. My persnickety standards applied to jewelry as well and even though I didn’t have a lot of cash to spend on the strands of pearls or the gold hoop earrings I coveted, I nonetheless steadfastly rejected anything that was costume or fake, even if gussied up with the charmingly Gallic term faux. Less would be more, I decided. If I couldn’t have gold, I’d buy silver. Budget too shrunken for diamonds? I’d wear turquoise.
But something has happened to me. Something unruly and insidious, though I’m not complaining. I’ve started to find the very fakes I would have eschewed twenty years ago, well appealing in their emphatic fakeness. Not only that, I’ve started buying and wearing them too. Pure plastic has become my new mantra. Pure plastic, I repeat to myself, admiring the sheen, the weight, the heft. But as I have come to learn, all plastics are not created equal. Some varieties are considered trash, fit for the landfill only, while others are as precious at platinum.
My first foray into the world of the showily synthetic came with Bakelite. Bakelite is the ne plus ultra of plastic these days. My mother, a serious jewelry maven, had been collecting and wearing the stuff for years. I was already quite late in my arrival at the Bakelite party. But I was eager to get into the swing. According to Corinne Davidov and Ginny Redington Dawes, authors of THE BAKELITE JEWELRY BOOK, Bakelite was the first entirely man-made thermosetting plastic, that is to say, one that hardened permanently when cured and could not be softened again with the application of heat. In their description, Bakelite “…was hard yet smooth, tasteless, odorless, stainless, moisture resistant, of colors that would neither fade nor chip and could be polished to a gem-like luster.” Proclaimed as the material of a thousand uses, it had it first application in the electrical insulation, heat-resistant radios, telephones and auto parts.
By the 1930s, it was being used in costume jewelry, big time. The Catalin Corporation was a trendsetter, with its impressive array of more than 200 hundred marbleized, translucent and transparent colors. As Davidov and Dawes point out, “….Bakelite could be sawed, sliced, threaded, ground, drilled, sanded as well as carved into intricate shapes and polished in big, rolling tumblers to the sheen and smoothness of glass.”
Of the 200 colors boasted by Catalin Corporation, a mere handful are seen today. Most common are red, yellow, and maroon, green, black. Where have all the others gone? Hard to say. But some hardcore Bakelite collectors have taken to polishing the pieces and have found that underneath the earthy browns are delicate lavenders. Cream and black yield white and blue. Murky green became turquoise and orange, hibiscus pink. But by now, those time and sun altered colors have an allure of their own. The warm palette of colors puts me in mind of candies: toffee and butterscotch, almond and caramel. I love them all.
Flipping through the Davifov-Dawes book, I swoon for the bracelets, deeply carved, with floral and botanical motifs. Pins in the shape of Scotties and bulldogs. Necklaces from which dangle cherries, red peppers, apples, strawberries or oranges. Certain themes and motifs appear regularly, like Mexico, the Far East, sports and the military. Prices reach the stratosphere, in the hundreds, and sometimes even thousands, for a rare and dramatic piece.
My own collection is, alas, more modest. I have a dozen or so bracelets, some carved, some buffed and smooth, none very large, and none with the fabulous patterns of dots, stripes or chevrons that I adore. I have a few pins too. The best of the lot, a gift from my mother, is an amber horse head, about three inches in size, with a lush and deeply carved mane. His incised eye, flared nostril and open panting mouth are black. I wear this fabulous ornament on a black coat where it shines like the evening star.
Since I couldn’t afford the serious Bakelite pieces for which I pined, I decided to get in on the ground floor of other kinds of early plastic. Prices are more reasonable and the selection is better. Not long ago, I was pawing though a box of jewelry at a yard sale. Down at the bottom I found a pin in the shape of a dog’s head. Price? A cool quarter. Something about the careful articulation of the animal’s features—the azure of his round, emphatic eye, his extended pink tongue, the pink and cream polka dotted bow he wore around his neck—made me think, this is old, this is good. It wasn’t, however, until I got him home and could examine him under a magnifying glass that I saw the magic words: Made in Occupied Japan on the back. My little canine friend had to be from the 1940s when such a designation was common. Pay dirt in a soiled shoebox.
It began to emerge that I now had a new reigning hierarchy, not of material per se, but of age. Contemporary plastic leaves me stone cold. It’s the old stuff I’m after. Having been born in 1957, Bakelite was made well before my time, but I can remember seeing women wearing jewelry I now know to have been fashioned from it. My grandmother’s best friend Riva had a pin that was in the shape of a red-capped bellhop. I found a picture of that identical pin in the Davidov/Dawes book and as I gazed it, I swear I could detect the delicate scent of my own plastic Madeleine rising up from the page. Other pieces from the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s have had a similar effect: I can almost see plastic pin shaped made to resemble a woven basket filled with roses on the lapel of suit worm by my great-aunt. Jewelry from the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s—the early 1970s are pretty much my cut off date—recalls what I saw and touched growing up. I have a special love for the beads, the bangles and baubles that remind me of those worn by my mother and her friends. Once I move past the early seventies, the spell is somehow broken. I cannot explain how it is that an object that is 50 years old is charming and quirky, while something that is 10, merely kitsch. But that’s how it is with collectors of any stripe: having a collection is all about making those selections, finding the subtle distinctions that create a personal matrix of meaning and value. I choose, therefore I am.
Lucite is another vintage plastic to which I have become partial. First made in the 1940s, it was often used for purses and the heels of sexy, strappy sandals, as well as the bracelets I have been avidly collecting of late. I’ve got a drawer crammed with Lucite bangles Some are sleek and tapered as the rings of Saturn, others thick and weighty as small steaks. Some are clear or tinted—pale pink, peach—while others are pearlized and possess the soft glow of moonlight diffused through lilac bushes. I also own Lucite studded with gemstones, and a hinged Lucite cuff with tiny shells embedded into its glittery surface, a perfect accessory for a midnight, mermaid ball. I’m predicting that the Lucite will be the next Bakelite, and as I’ve watched the prices climb even in the few years I’ve been collecting, I suspect I’m right.
I look for offbeat pieces too, like the double strand of black and white cube shaped beads whose matching earrings are molded to the form of little footballs. Another necklace and earring set I found has big, ovoid beads in a palette of pinks, yellows and creams. Some of these beads are adorned with tiny plastic flowers while others are speckled with a pale, sparkling material that looks for all the world like sugar. I am also partial to those triple stranded necklaces, with goofy beads in nesting rows that most likely date from the 1950s. I have one of these whose beads—metallic green, of an irregular shape and pebbled texture—look like the sort of rocks you might find while strolling on the moon. Another triple strand of more regularized beads is nonetheless lifted from the ordinary by its riot of pinks, reds, violets and oranges. The overall effect is not unlike those bright and crunchy gumballs for which you paid a penny in machines all over Brooklyn.
That’s the appeal, really. Plastic jewelry is something primitive and joyful, childlike and even, at moments, edible. I love the clack of the plastic bracelets as they skitter merrily along my arm, the saturated punch of color packed by a pin, the sheer insouciance of the earrings, the chokers, the merry ropes of beads. I’ve found a kind of easy naturalness—of spirit, if in not in fact—in the very materials I used to disdain. That they were made a long time ago—many of them at a time when I myself was young, and everything, indeed anything, seemed possible—enhances their appeal even more. Pure plastic, I reflect happily as I survey my brimming jewel case. Pure me.