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    

Bold Vintage Faux Tortoise Shell Black Celluloid Bakelite Cameo Pendant NecklaceWeiss Bakelite Or Celluloid Rhinestone Clamper Bangle Hinged Bracelet VintageVtg Cameo Celluloid Cloisonne Enamel Locket Victorian Style Costume Jewelry LotHuge Lot Of Vintage Clip On Earrings Lot 11 - Cameo Stones Rhinestones CelluloidLaminated Bakelite Celluloid Black Cream Prison Mourning Photo Ring Young GirlAntique Victorian Floral Pink Celluloid Silver Ring Size 6 Estate Unusual FindVintage Creamy Celluloid Gold & Rhinestone Bangle Bracelet #1Vintage Celluloid + Glass Yellow Choker Necklace 16-1/2" Leaves GrapesVintage Faux Tortoise Shell Celluloid Plastic Cuff BraceletAntique Art Deco Vintage Necklace Pendant Molded Celluloid Dangle Long! 4092Antique Set Bracelet Necklace Carved Vegetable Celluloid Graduated! 4120Vintage Creamy Celluloid Gold Insert Rhinestone Bangle Bracelet #3Estate Lot Of 6 Antique Edwardian Stickpins: Art Noveau Women, Celluloid Etc.Fab Vintage Brown Celluloid Brooch With Green & Brown Rhinestones, Wowza! (1188)Art Deco Multi Colored Celluloid Link Army Sweetheart Vintage Necklace CharmVintage Creamy Celluloid Gold & Jonquil Rhinestone Bangle Bracelet #2Art Deco Celluloid Bracelet Art Deco Design W/rhinestones3 Day Only Vtg Jewelry Lot Charm Necklace Doll Bracelet Celluloid Roller SkateVintage Red Celluloid & Green Flower Ring - Size 9 1/212 Bakelite Celluloid Plastic Scottie Dog Terrier Pin Brooch Beyond CuteVintage Art Deco Retro Molded Colored Celluloid Flower Basket Brooch PinVintage Art Deco Celluloid Bakelite Cut Design Bead Necklace Strand Adjusts Vintage Art Deco C.1950s Celluloid Blackamoor Dress ClipExquisite Vintage Red Celluloid & Crystal Heron Brooch!Vtg Antique Art Deco Brooch Pin I'm Falling For You Celluloid Valentines DayVintage Bakelite / Celluloid ?? Floral Brooch Pin W/ Yellow Rhinestones JewelryVintage Plastic Celluloid Chain W/ Art Deco Aliens (?) Necklace -bakelite StyleSpectacular! Antique Chinese Celluloid Carved Hand Painted Hair Pin Vtg Clamper Bangle Bracelet Molded Flower Carved Look Repousse Lucite CelluloidVintage Carved Celluloid/bakelite/lucite Pin/brooch Art Deco Victorian RetroAntique Art Deco Carved Vegetable Celluloid Rose Bead Graduated Rivere! 4091Antique 1893 Flag Of Irish Rep. & Usa Flag Celluloid Pin ~ "w&h Co. Newark, Nj"Vintage Sterling Silver Marcasite Flower BroochVintage Large Art Nouveau Celluloid Cameo BroochVintage Jewellery Celluloid Lucite Crinoline Lady Brooch PinVintage 1940s Plastic Celluloid Moveable Red Boot Hiding Cat Kitty Pin 19821Early Carved Bakelite Pin & Abstract Celluloid Rhinestone Guitar VintageVintage Celluloid Ballerina Ballet Dancer Yellow Tutu Charm Cracker JackVintage Multi Colored Dice & Glass Bead Stretch Bracelet Fabulous Vintage Black Celluloid & Jet Crystal Fruit Brooch!Vintage Brooch Pin Plastic Horse Celluloid ? White Enamel Equestrian RodeoCa 1920 Celluloid Bracelet - Bangle - Child Size - Lattice Design - Green StonesArt Deco French Country Carved Faux Pink Coral Celluloid Rose & Pearl NecklaceRare Bakelite Era Running Grey Terrier Dog Celluloid Brooch Pin C-clasp Pat PendVintage Hinged Bracelet & Clip Earrings Coral Orange Plastic Celluloid? FlowersVintage 1 3/4 In Wide Round Celluloid Plastic Multi-color BraceletVtg Black Celluloid Trembler Head Scottie Scotty Dog Pin Brooch 'bakelite Era'Vintage Celluloid Sitting Dog Charm Cracker JackVintage Celluloid Peking Glass Art Nouveau Bracelet Earring SetAntique Victorian Holy Grail Warehouse Find Celluloid Gavel Brooch! Rv 2216Vintage Coral Celluloid Flower EarringsAdorable Vintage Celluloid & Crystal Walrus Pendant! Vintage White Necklace Clamper Bracelet Celluloid? Pierced Earrings Bird PinAntique Japan Coral Tone Carved Celluloid Plastic Wide Brooch PinLge Lot Multi Strand Necklaces Wedgewood Cameo Celluloid Bangle SignersHard Plastic Pin Brooch Vtg Fruit Not Flowers Celluloid Very Detailed RaisedVintage 50's Light Blue Carved Celluloid Rose Bud Gold Tone Flower Brooch Pin Vintage Molded Celluloid Black & White Necklace & Clip Earrings SetVintage Celluloid Cameo PinVintage Carved Coral-pink Celluloid Rose Brooch Earrings