Created in 1869 by John Wesley Hyatt, Celluloid was one of the first plastics ever made. Celluloid is a semi-synthetic thermoplastic made from nitrocellulose and camphor. The earliest form of Celluloid was highly flammable, so in 1927 the nitrocellulose and camphor were removed and replaced by vinegar (making it less flammable).
Celluloid was widely used for a variety of items including jewellery, due to its versatility. Combs were made that resembled tortoise and necklaces, vanity sets, and other items were made to look like ivory (often referred to as ‘French ivory’). This meant that everyone could own expensive looking items for much, much less! I’m lucky enough to have some of the ‘French ivory’ vanity pieces (thanks Mom), however I don’t have any photos just yet.
Celluloid Novelty Jewellery
In the 1950s, Japan produced a lot of Celluloid jewellery such as novelty brooches of Scottie dogs, people, flowers, etc. I particularly love this type of Celluloid jewellery as the pieces are so unique and adorable.
How to Identify Celluloid
- The Look – Celluloid often resembles carved ivory and sometimes tortoise. Celluloid is brittle and can sometimes be identified by its decomposition. If you look closely you may spot disintegration (crumbling), cracks or crystallization. When held in the light, even if the piece is opaque, you may be able to see through it.
- The Weight – Celluloid is very light. It is much, much lighter and thinner than other vintage plastics such as Lucite and Bakelite.
- The Smell – Older Celluloid pieces smell like camphor due to the composition of the material. If there is no camphor smell, your piece may be Celluloid dated after 1927 when the camphor was removed.
How to Test for Celluloid
- Rubbing Method – Rub the piece between your finger and thumb until it’s hot and then smell it. If you detect a camphor or moth ball smell, your piece is Celluloid.
- Hot Water Method – Run hot water over your piece and smell it, if it smells like camphor then your piece is Celluloid.
- Hot Needle Method – Heat a needle until it’s hot and poke your item. It will smoke and smell like camphor. CAUTION: I do not recommend this method as early Celluloid is highly flammable. Do not risk harming yourself or your item, play it safe and use the rubbing or hot water methods!
Do you know of any other Celluloid tests? Do let me know!