Patented in 1869, Celluloid was not the first man-made plastic—that honor goes to Parkesine, which was formulated in 1865 by a Birmingham, England, inventor named Alexander Parkes, who combined collodion (used in tintypes and ambrotypes), camphor, and vegetable oil so it could be rolled into sheets and adhered to cloth, making the resulting material waterproof. Unfortunately, Parkesine proved brittle, its key ingredient, collodion, was highly flammable, and in his zeal to cut manufacturing costs, Parkes ended up producing a product of poor quality. The firm closed in 1868.

Meanwhile, in the United States, an inventor named John Wesley Hyatt was experimenting with nitrocellulose, whose main ingredient is a plant fiber called cellulose and whose soluble form is collodion. Like Parkes, Hyatt was trying to create a plastic, but his sights were set on billiard balls—a company called Phelan & Collander had promised $10,000 to anyone who could come up with a substitute for ivory, which even in the 19th century was a dwindling resource. Hyatt did not win the prize, but in the course of trying to produce the ball, he noticed that when camphor was added to nitrocellulose, the combination plasticized. In 1868 and 1870 respectively, Hyatt formed the Albany Billiard Ball Company and the Albany Dental Plate Company to put his invention to work, but his main claim to fame was the Celluloid Manufacturing Company, which was founded in 1872 when the Dental Plate Company’s name was changed.

For years, Celluloid could only be used in certain applications because of its flammability. For example, it never caught on in billiard parlors because the Celluloid-coated balls would sometimes produce small explosions when they collided with each other. Similarly, the coating’s use in movie film sparked countless fires in hot projection rooms—today, the instability of early silent films make their preservation for future generations a tricky business. The problem was the nitro part of nitrocellulose, which prompted inventors to find alternatives. In France, where filmmaking was born (sorry, Hollywood!), a scientist named Henry Dreyfuss created what he called a “safety film” in 1900 by mixing cellulose with acetic acid instead of the more volatile nitric variety. A few years later, in 1907, Leo Baekeland created the first fully synthetic plastic, which he called Bakelite.

The advent of hard, carvable Bakelite and this new, somewhat-less-flammable version of celluloid (lowercase now, since the word was often used imprecisely to describe plastics in general) spurred even more uses of the material, particularly in costume jewelry. Knowing that one’s brooch was less likely to spontaneously combust was an obvious selling point, as was the price, which was lower than the original, more flammable stuff.

Examples of celluloid costume jewelry include bangles studded with small rhinestones, pins and necklaces made out of molded leaves in a variety of colors, and earrings that resemble everything from carved ivory and coral to Christmas ornaments. Celluloid was also a popular material for dress and fur clips of the 1920s and ’30s, often used in combination with metal or casein, another type of early plastic. Shapes included flowers of all types and colors, birds, puppy dogs, and characters from Popeye to ice skaters.


Best of the Web (“Hall of Fame”)

Researching Costume Jewelry

Researching Costume Jewelry

Jewelry lovers, venture through this amazing database of vintage jewelry articles, catalogs, and brochures, as well… [read review or visit site]

Emerald City Vintage Costume Jewelry

Emerald City Vintage Costume Jewelry

It looks like we're not in Kansas anymore with Elizabeth Rowlands' site on vintage costume jewelry from the 1940s a… [read review or visit site]

Morning Glory Antiques and Jewelry

Morning Glory Antiques and Jewelry

Jewelry collectors, feast your eyes on this internet gem! It's a goldmine of jewelry information featuring all styl… [read review or visit site]

All About Jewels Dictionary

All About Jewels Dictionary

This incredible reference dictionary on jewelry, from Enchantedlearning.com, is both beautiful and comprehensive. S… [read review or visit site]

Cathy Gordon's Jewelry Gallery

Cathy Gordon's Jewelry Gallery

With its vast galleries featuring clear images of jewelry and style, this site really covers it all! Divided up by … [read review or visit site]



Clubs & Associations

Most watched eBay auctions    

Vintage Art Deco Carved Molded Celluloid Bead NecklaceVintage Art Deco France Faux Ivory Celluloid Silhouette Courting Couple BroochAntique Celluloid Buddy Pin Vtg 1920s 1930s Uncle Sam Military Button Delightful Art Deco French? Celluloid Cut Out Swan BroochVintage Cherry Red Early Plastic Celluloid Chain Link Necklace Scotty Dog CharmVintage Celluloid Mourning Ring-man In Suit Vintage Art Deco French Jewellery Scarce Celluloid Cut Out Picture Brooch PinVintage Deeply Carved Coral Celluloid ? Floral Bangle Bracelet - JapanLot 14 Vintage Bakelite Celluloid Lucite Jewelry Bangles Necklaces ClipVintag Weiss Styl Clear Rhinestone, Bakelite, Celluloid Plastic Clamper BraceletVintage Celluloid Necklace With 39 Space Related Charms 18 1/2" Long No ReserveWeiss Cream Bakelite Celluloid Rhinestone Clamper Bracelet Earrings Demi Set WowVintage Estate White Carved Celluloid Rose Leaf Bead NecklaceCute Vintage Terrier Brooch Circa 1930s To 1950s Celluloid/plasticCharming Vintage Scotty Dog Vintage Plastic ?? Celluloid?? BraceletOriginal Vintage 3 Pc. Red Carved Bakelite Celluloid Sparkle Bracelet Bangle LotAntique Victorian 'mourning' Celluloid 'whitby Jet' Long Guard Chain, 137cmVtg Miriam Haskell Signed Woven Rattan Wicker Straw Black Bead Necklace 30" MintLot 6 Vintage Pendants: Mustard Seed, Rhinestone, Agate, Carved Celluloid(?)Classic Vintage Lea Stein Designer Celluloid Bangle Bracelet- Cream Black TwistAntique Cherub Pendant // Celluloid // Monastery Work France 1900Vintage Victorian Belt Buckle Lot Celluloid Swan Germany Czech Green PasteEarly Romeo Juliet Celluloid Figural Pin Antique Great Colors Art DecoVintage Celluloid Carved Flowers Raised Roses Bangle BraceletTrifari Signed Gold Tone Celluloid Plastic Flower BroochAntique Art Deco Brooch Pin Celluloid Flower Rare! 3349Lovely Vintage Gold Tone Celluloid Rhinestone Cat & Mouse Tumbler BroochVtg Antique Brooch Pin Celluloid Plastic Art Deco Clear Rhinestone Flower BasketStunning Vintage Estate Blue Rhinestone Celluloid Bangle Child Bracelet!!! 1208rVintage Art Deco Early Plastic Or Celluloid Dog Brooch Dogs In Kennel Pin Vintage Jewellery 40's Celluloid Terrier Dog Brooch Pin SchnauzerLot Of (7) Vintage Multi-colored Quality Rhinestone Bracelets, Cat, Coro,lisner1920s Celluloid Coral Pendant & Chain, Amazingly Real-lookingFabulous Vintage Yellow Celluloid Wide Bracelet!Antique Retro Vintage Fruit Salad Celluloid Wood Beaded Necklace Charm Bracelet Vintage Estate Carved Celluloid Lucite Flower Brooch Pin $.99 NrAntique Deco Nouveau Brooch Pin Molded Celluloid Spring Flower Tiered Pretty! 52Stunning Antique Estate Gold Tone Celluloid Faux Pearl Flower Brooch!!! 1160yVictorian Silver Dance Card Cotillion Chatelaine As Is J2431 Vtg Art Deco Repair Craft Lot Early Plastic Celluloid Brooch Navy Sailor Bird +Vintage Celluloid Scottie Dog Pin Brooch With Hanging Heart Red Bird Bakelite Molded Plastic Celluloid Pin Brooch VtgVintage Japanese Elaborate Celluloid Azalea Brooch~pinVintage White Celluloid Plastic And Rhinestone Earrings Clip On EarringsVintage Carved Blue Celluloid Rose Bracelet And ChokerVtg Clip Earring Lot: Cloisonne Enamel Daisy Celluloid Plastic Flowers 2 DanglesBeautiful Vintage Celluloid Lace Look White Flower BroochAntique Silver Brooch Handpainted Flowers CelluloidVintage Pasadena Celluloid Plastic Brooch Pin Comedy Tragedy Masks Art Deco LookSet K.l. Estate Vintage 14k Yellow Gold Carved Celluloid Flower Pin And EarringsVintage Celluloid Pin Brooch Scottie Dog Under UmbrellaVintage Celluloid Pin Brooch Scottie Dog With ParachuteVintage Celluloid Child's Bracelet Kitten Bunny Bear Antique Toy OldVintage Celluloid Plastic Clamper Bracelet Carved Flower Hinge Cuff Bangle Vintage Hard Plastic Celluloid Bangle Bracelet With 4 Rows Of RhinestonesVintage Carved Celluloid Pagoda Necklace-estateVintage Carved Floral Celluloid? Made In Japan Bangle BraceletVintage Japan Celluloid Flower Brooch PinVintage Mix Lot (16) Scarf Clip/buckles; Lucite, Celluloid/bakelite? Exvc Vintage Pasadena Jewelry Celluloid Plastic Brooch Pin Flower Motif Art Deco Look