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Vintage Lucite Jewelry

What is Lucite?

There is no real difference between Acrylic and LuciteLucite is just the best version of acrylic on the market.  Lucite, a form of acrylic resin, appeared in many colours and styles of jewelry during the 1940s and 1950s. It comes in virtually every hue, from transparent to semi-transparent to opaque. Similar to Bakelite, another popular mid-century resin material, Lucite has become collectible in recent years. Lucite is still used today in the production of some jewelry. 

 

History

Lucite acrylic was invented by the Dupont Corporation in 1931. It was crystal clear with a 93 percent transparency rate, resistant to water and UV rays, and was low density yet stronger than previous plastics.  This made Lucite the product of choice for aircraft windows and domes during WWII.  Following the end of WWII other uses were discovered for this liquid-state, moldable product, such as in jewelry, as an alternative to window glass and is still used as the window material of choice for commercial airplanes.  Lucite replaced Bakelite by the 1950's.

 

When Lucite Was Popular

The period of prosperity for Lucite started in the early 1940s and ran until the 1950s, although companies continued to make pieces into the 1970s. The most valuable and desirable collectors’ pieces date back to the 1950s and 1960s when artisans took Lucite to an extreme art form.

 

Why Jewelry Makers Loved Lucite

Lucite was unique and popular in the 1940s and 1950s as a way to make jewelry for several reasons. It was inexpensive to make, so manufacturers could mass-produce items for everyone to buy in the post-World War II era. The substance is hard, water-resistant and lightweight. This substance stands up to polishing, carving, cutting and heating. Factories could add every possible hue to Lucite to make extravagant, multi-coloured pieces. Lucite as a pourable acrylic lent itself well to manufacturer’s whims.  I could be poured and moulded into many shapes and form seamless designs.  The possibilities were endless for the use of Lucite in jewelry making.  The acrylic plastic finish can range from transparent to translucent to opaque lending even more range in the pieces that could be produced.

 

Identifying Features of Vintage Lucite Jewelry

Vintage Lucite pieces bear a few recognizable styles popular at the time of their manufacture. Lucite beads that look like glass were fashionable and can even stumble up experts in determining if the beads are Lucite or glass.

There are five distinct types of Lucite pieces that class all of the same into categories of manufacture.

  1. Embedded:  whereby the outer portion of the piece is clear, but the centre between the front and the back of the piece has an object embedded into it.  Flowers, seashells or gems were popular choices and were often made of acrylic, as well.

 

  1. Confetti: transparent Lucite that contains small chips or glitter encased within the jewelry. Typical confetti pieces include brooches, buttons and pendants.

 

  1. Jelly Bellies: Made almost exclusively by Trifari that company found a way to mimic crystal patterns that formed the basis for the bellies of animal shapes. Although clear Lucite cabochons became the staple body  of roosters, poodles, bumblebees and elephants, Trifari also used opalescent Lucite in many designs.

 

  1. Moonglow:  an almost fully opaque form of Lucite appears to glow from within, much like real moonstone. Just as with the other forms of Lucite every kind of jewelry was made with moonglow Lucite. Collectors look for the distinctive shine.

 

5.  Granite:  as its’ description implies, pieces of Lucite imitate the look of real  granite.  Just like genuine granite the Lucite pieces can range in a variety of patterns and colours from speckled to a marble-like appearance.  Granite pieces are usually opaque. Granite Lucite is a clear mark of a vintage piece.

 

How to Tell if it really is Lucite

Lucite is easily confused with other types of vintage plastic and other types of vintage plastic are easily confused with Lucite if it does not fall into one of the 5 distinct categories. A very simple test is that is required to determine the material in your jewelry. Take your piece of jewelry and dip it into hot, but not boiling, water. Continue to hold the piece of jewelry in the hot water for 30 seconds. Remove it from the water and smell it. If it is Lucite, it will have no discernable scent. Bakelite will smell highly acidic. Celluloid, another early variation of plastic, will smell like vinegar.  Just be sure your sniffer is working well. 


Contemporary Values

Vintage Lucite pieces are very common and are a great way to start a vintage jewelry collection. Aficionados can look for high-quality pieces that increase the value of this style of jewelry. As plastic, in general, tends to scratch easily, mint condition pieces may be hard to find. Look for bright colours signed by vintage artists or Lucite jewelry with original tags still attached.

Online auction sites represent one of the best ways to gauge prices and availability of vintage pieces.  Simply search for “vintage Lucite jewelry” in the search box. While there have been fantastic prices asked for Lucite pieces on website such as eBay and Etsy, stick to the auction houses, antique shops and even second-hand or thrift stores to source your collection.  You will find vastly more realistic prices in these places.  Of course, if you find a piece made by Chanel or other top-level designer be prepared to pay a substantial amount of money.  A pearl pill Lucite evening bag with silver handle made by Chanel 2008-2009 sold at auction for USD$3,750 in 2018. Please, share some of your favourite Lucite designs in the comments below!

 

During the 1970s I began making and selling jewellry, a passion I shared with my mum, through local businesses. Together, we made hundreds of pieces of everyday accessories to wedding accessories. From 1980 to 1993 I was an integral part of the team of successful small business entrepreneurs behind Boaz Junction, a local women's wear store here in St. Catharines, Ontario.

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