The human urge to make and acquire jewellery is a complex and deeply rooted phenomenon which has been with human kind since earliest times. Evidence of body adornment exists amongst the earliest signs of human civilisation.
In the beginning jewellery performed a symbolic function. In the form of amulets it offered protection, in the form of crowns sceptres, orbs and such like it signified power, religious jewellery in the form of goblets, candelabra and rings lent symbolism to ritualistic activities, and crosses and other symbols represented personal affiliations. However jewellery was also used for personal symbolism too, the matrimonial ring, and the enhancement of female beauty. Latterly male jewellery also emerged in the form of functional objects signet rings, watch chains, tie-pins and cufflinks, and medallions for the more brazen!
It is hard to say whether the scarce materials often used in jewellery were considered valuable because of their beauty and suitability for jewellery, or whether the symbolism of the jewellery was enhanced by the value of the scarce and therefore already costly materials. Perhaps both are true and each reinforces the other. Whichever is true, jewellery was always valuable, and the materials used mostly expensive.
There are many types of materials employed, various metals such as gold, silver, platinum, gemstones such as diamonds and sapphires, and many other minerals and organic materials such as onyx, jet, amber and pearls.
As the skills and techniques in handling these materials increased, ever more beautiful pieces were made, but because of their cost they were products for the rich.
The earliest plastic materials were natural organic substances such as ivory, tortoiseshell, horn, bone, pearl and amber which could be moulded and shaped.
The first man made plastic materials had been appearing from about 1850 onward. Pyroxilin (or xylonite) based on cellulose, camphor, and nitric and sulphuric acids was first sold as Parkesine, and later the more refined Celluloid was developed. A second type of plastic was synthesised in the late nineteenth century based on formaldehyde added to a protein derived from soured milk and known as casein.
However the most successful early synthetic plastic was Bakelite which was developed early in the twentieth century. Based on a mixture of formaldehyde and phenolic acid which forms a viscous liquid when mixed and which sets permanently when heated into a hard material that cannot be softened or dissolved. This is called a thermosetting plastic which, once cast, can be further worked only by physical processes such as cutting, filing, drilling and polishing.
Celluloid and casein jewellery was produced on a small scale, encouraged by a fashion for heavy bracelets after the first world war and into the 1920’s. It took some years until Bakelite was refined and colourful dyes were developed, but once this happened, Bakelite jewellery was produced in greater volume from the late twenties onwards. However the jewellery was still hand-crafted and production was therefore limited, and as some materials were not stable over long periods, jewellery in all three early materials has become scarce and eagerly collectable.
The Bakelite Jewelry Book by Corinne Davidov and Ginny Redington Dawes, Abbeville Press N.Y. 1988 ISBN 0-89659-867-5 has some excellent pictures and information.
During the second world war, Bakelite production was channelled exclusively towards the war effort, and by the end of the war, other materials had been discovered.
Thermoplastics in the form of acrylic, polyester, polyamide, polythene and PVC were developed whose physical properties were more advanced than Bakelite. Thermoplastics can be shaped by heating and never set permanently hard like the earlier thermosetting plastics. Several of these have been used for jewellery and the most popular are acrylic and polyester.
The economic depression of the twenties combined with the availability of cheap but durable colourful and shiny materials led to an explosion in non-precious jewellery.
At first this was still the domain of the rich and it was designers such as Chanel who first sanctioned the use of these materials and demonstrated their beauty and use in fine jewellery to an ever widening public.
Today jewellery of all types is more popular than ever before. The United Kingdom produces a wide range of contemporary jewellery which ranges from precious metals and stones to sophisticated uses of modern materials such as aluminium, nylon and PVC.