I was a plastic snob. When we first opened a bead store, I would have customers walk in and say “So why shouldn’t I just go down to the local craft mall and purchase my beads?” “Because…” I would start, “All they offer is (nose crinkling up) plastic!” Ick. And then my eyes were opened to all of the varying materials that fell under that term ‘plastic’ when we were offered to come and take a look at the contents of a warehouse that were for sale back in 2004.
It seems that the names for all things plastic are hard to differentiate these days. Lucite is such a pretty word that it’s easy to want to label all things plastic as such. However each plastic recipe has varying qualities that give tell-tale signs as to how to accurately label a plastic bead. Below are some of the definitions to let you know what type of plastic beads you might have in your own collection.
A thermoplastic is a plastic that melts to a liquid when heated and freezes to a brittle, very glassy state when cooled sufficiently. Thermoplastic polymers differ from thermosetting polymers (Bakelite; vulcanized rubber) as they can, unlike thermosetting polymers, be remelted and remoulded.
A thermosetting plastic cannot be welded or remolded when heated, and will simply burning instead. However, once a thermosetting plastic is cured, it tends to be stronger than a thermoplastic.
Bakelite (or AG-4 phenolic resin) is a brand name for a material based on the thermosetting phenol formaldehyde resin,polyoxybenzylmethylenglycolanhydride (aren’t you happier to call it Bakelite?) developed in 1907–1909 by Belgian-American Dr. Leo Baekeland. Bakelite beads & jewelry components are molded, carved or extruded. Sometimes the color is inlaid into another to make interesting designs, such as the common polka dot design. Bakelite plastic is made from formaldehyde and carbolic acid.
Catalin is a brand name for a thermosetting plastic popular in the 1930s. Chemically, it’s a phenol formaldehyde resin. Catalin is a cast bakelite product, with a different manufacturing process (two-stage process) than other types of bakelite resins (without using fillers such as sawdust or carbon black). Catalin is transparent, near colorless, rather than opaque, brown, so unlike other bakelite phenolics it can be dyed bright colors or even marbled. This has made Catalin more popular than other types of bakelite. In the 1930-50’s it quickly replaced most plastic consumer goods. Catalin is a trademark of the American Catalin Corporation. Catalin cast bakelite is perhaps the most worldwide recognized plastic used in fashion accessories and fine, expensive jewelry.
Celluloid is the name of a class of compounds created from nitrocellulose and camphor, plus dyes and other agents. Generally regarded to be the first thermoplastic, it was first created as Parkesine in 1856 and as Xylonite in 1869 before being registered as Celluloid in 1870. Celluloid is easily molded and shaped, and it was first widely used as an ivory replacement. Celluloid is highly flammable and also easily decomposes, and is no longer widely used.
Lucite is one of the many name brands used to describe Poly(methyl methacrylate) (PMMA) or poly(methyl 2-methylpropenoate) the synthetic polymer of methyl methacrylate. Lucite methyl methacrylate polymer was among the first plastics derived from petrochemicals. DuPont chemists discovered Lucite® in 1931 while exploring the high-pressure technology developed for ammonia production. The polymer’s crystal-clear appearance and its strength were far superior to nitrocellulose-based plastics. Lucite was in heavy demand during World War II for use in windshields, nose cones, and gunner turrets for bombers and fighter planes. After the war, DuPont marketed it for use in a variety of decorative and functional uses, such as lamps, hairbrushes and jewelry.
Plastic is the general term for a wide range of synthetic or semi-synthetic polymerization products. They are composed of organic condensation or addition polymers and may contain other substances to improve performance or reduce costs. There are many natural polymers generally considered to be “plastics”. Plastics can be formed into objects or films or fibers.
A common question we get at The Beadin’ Path about many of our plastic beads surrounds the age and origin. The majority of the plastic beads we carry are Lucite and they were produced by Best Plastics right here in the US. In fact, when we purchased the warehouse contents we were fortunate enough to get to know the head of the company, who had worked for the company and manufactured Lucite beads and jewelry components since he was 16 years old. He was able to give us loads of invaluable. By our definition (and the definition of most vintage and antique dealers), these beads are ‘vintage’ in that they must be 25-30 years old or more. These beads were produced right in Rhode Island between the 1960’s and the very early 1980’s.
We also stumbled upon some lovely vintage Lucite flowers, years ago, that were produced in Western Germany. Most of these shapes were pressed and came in a matte crystal color. Once we experimented and learned that we could dye this material using RIT dye, the possibilities were endless. However, after these flowers became available in a full palette of colors, their popularity became unmatched. Eventually most of the vintage Lucite flowers sold out. However, the company where we had found them has been in the jewelry business for 94 years! Luckily they still had contact with the original manufacturer of these great pieces that had been made in the 1960’s and 1970’s and are able to reproduce them today using the original molds. The plastic is still the Lucite crystal matte recipe that has been used for generations. This is why you’ll see that some of our flowers are labeled ‘vintage German Lucite’ and others are marked ‘contemporary German Lucite’ and that they might even be similar in style to one another.
We also carry a contemporary line of plastics at The Beadin’ Path that are not made using the same chemical recipe as the Lucite beads. We refer to these as either vintage or contemporary plastics or acrylics. Many times, while fun to use in your beadwork, these beads won’t have the weighty, higher-end feel of the Lucite, and the price tag is generally lower as well.
Hopefully this gives you some insight into the world of plastic beads and that if you too are a ‘plastic snob’, maybe this article can make it just your ‘plastic-snob phase’ like the one that I went through back in 1993-2003. There is so much out there to be discovered in the bead market today and much of it has the beauty and nostalgia of glass or any other material. However in the end, buy what you love regardless of what someone is labeling it. You’ll never go wrong with that rule of thumb.
Wikipedia - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Main_Page
A fabulous jewelry glossary put together by Annie Sherman at