Developed in the 1930s, the clear acrylic plastic branded as Lucite became a wildly popular for material for costume jewelry starting in the 1950s. Less expensive to produce than Bakelite, Galalith, and Catalin and more chemically stable than celluloid, Lucite made these earlier jewelry plastics obsolete.
In its pure form, Lucite is translucent, resembling glass or rock crystal, but it can be dyed in a wide range of colors and opacity, making it the perfect material for bold blocks of Mid-century Modern colors. Hard, water-resistant, and lightweight, Lucite can be carved and polished, and it is easy to wear.
The scientists at two rival chemical companies, DuPont and Rohm & Haas, spent the 1930s working on glass-like acrylic resins (a.k.a. polymethyl methacrylate). Rohm & Haas launche...
Both of these materials were used by the military in periscopes, windshields, gunner turrets, cockpits, and the noses of bomber planes. Only, DuPont, though, was clever enough to freely license its new material to multiple costume-jewelry makers.
Trifari was the first to embrace this new plastic in the late 1930s, using large, clear cabochons of Lucite to imitate rock crystals and form the “bellies” of animal figural brooches known as Jelly Bellies. Head Trifari designer Alfred Philippe ran with this concept in the the 1940s, producing a whimsical Jelly Belly menagerie of hatching chicks, crowing roosters, proud poodles, ball-balancing seals, fat bumble bees, and regal elephants. One rare Jelly Belly pin even features tiny fish carved into a round Lucite tank, which a cat dangles from a chain.
A popular rumor about Jelly Belly is that they were manufactured from recycled World War II fighter windshields. The story, said to be in the historical archives of Trifari, goes that Philippe was surveying a pile of “unusable” material at an Air Force scrap heap and had a stroke of genius to carve the leftover acrylic into Jelly Belly cabochons.
Jewelry historian Bobye Syverson, who also flew and worked on some of the planes, questions this story, explaining that the windshields were only ¼ to ½ of an inch thick. Although it's true that many military mechanics would carve rings out of Lucite windshields as souvenirs for their girlfriends, those tended to yellow in a way Jelly Bellies do not.
Seeing how popular these brooches were after the war, Coro produced its own line under its Corocraft brand, including an angel fish. Trifari sued the company for stealing its idea, but soon other costume jewelers were releasing their own unsigned Jelly Bellies. While many animal figurines were made with colored Lucite bellies, to be considered a “true” Jelly Belly the acrylic must be clear.
In the 1950s, as modernism took hold, Lucite dominated costume jewelry and was used to make brightly colored all-plastic rings, bracelets, and bangles, as well as beads and ornaments on earrings and necklaces. It could be adapted to have a translucent coloring like “apple juice” or a pearl-like sheen known as “moonglow.” Lucite jewelry produced between 1940 and 1953 often included glitter, rhinestones, or sea shells, while translucent bangles could have designs carved into their interiors.
Lisner made a tremendous range of Lucite items, in every color and shape imaginable. Until recently, these pieces were dismissed by collectors, but now the popularity of these items is on the rise, particularly the colored Lucite oak-leaf pieces. In the ’50s, Lucite was still considered fairly classy, whittled into all sorts of figures and shapes and used for hard-side purses and even stiletto high-heel shoes.
In the early ’60s, the concept of disposable culture became something to celebrate, as seen in the cheap mod fashions sold on Carnaby Street in London and the rise of pop art. Mass-produced plastic jewelry was all the rage among the trendy, as Lucite was turned into fake-looking flower pins, as well as bracelets made of mahjong tiles.
At the same time, geometric Space Age fashion by haute couture designers like Cardin and Courèges encouraged PVC dresses and accessories of Lucite and Perspex (another acrylic). “Architec-jewels” made of Lucite in bold black-and-white op-art styles were sold as high fashion.
Costume and “junk” jewelry fell out of favor in the ’70s, even as Lucite was used in disco platform shoes. But acrylic jewelry made a comeback in the 1980s when garish, artificial-looking neon-colored pieces came into fashion.
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