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Jewellery Glossary: Celluloid

Posted on 07/01/2013

I have been fascinated by celluloid since my Great Uncle Harry gave me my first piece when I was a child. It was delicate, lace like and heart shaped and I have kept it always. My personal collection now includes; celluloid buckles, brooches, bangles and fans to name just a few.  Those who know me are used to seeing me with at least one bangle permanently on my wrist.

A Little History: 

Celluloid (cellulose nitrate) is considered to be the first thermoplastic, which can be moulded while it is hot and hardens as it cools. It is made from nitric acid, cellulose and camphor. It was highly flammable and quickly decomposed. It was invented by American John W. Hyatt in 1868 as an Ivory substitute. Imitation Ivory celluloid is sometimes referred to as “French Ivory” or “Ivorine” two of its trademarked names.

The first examples of celluloid jewellery were made in 1875 by the Celluloid Novelty Company in Newark, New York. They included traditional Victorian Leit motifs which were very realistically moulded such as; cameos, black celluloid mourning jewellery, realistically modelled animals and hands holding fans or roses.

Buying Celluloid Bangles:

A lot of the celluloid you will encounter comes from Japan, who became the market leaders in its production. Japanese celluloid has a slightly waxy appearance and is intricately detailed incorporating recurring motifs of flowers such as Chrysanthemums, Roses, Daises and Peonies.

Each bangle is made out of strips of moulded plastic, which was then hand finished, achieving the look of carved Ivory or Coral. Some of these pieces were then delicately hand painted or glazed with a pearlescent coating.

When you look at a celluloid bangle you can tell its age by looking for the join. In the earlier examples from the 1930’s the join is always vertical and often a little messy where the strip of plastic has been joined end to end. In later 1950’s examples the join is horizontal and the moulding is less detailed.


These wonderful bangles produced in Japan during the 1930’s are often marked Japan or Foreign. They were made in large numbers for export to America. Later pieces marked “Occupied Japan” were made for the export market from 1945 – 1952. The sale of these items helped Japan recover their economy after WWII.

Cleaning Celluloid:

You can clean your lovely celluloid jewellery with an old soft toothbrush either dry or with a little warm water. Remember to gently dry your jewellery after you have cleaned it and store it away from direct sunlight. Take extra care with hand painted celluloid items. It’s important to remember celluloid is affected by heat and solvents so never immerse it in hot water or spray it with perfume which can cause discolouration.

Want to know more?

If you would like to learn more about celluloid then this is an excellent book, Celluloid Collectors Reference and Value Guide by Keith Lauer & Julie Robinson.

  You can see all the stunning Celluloid we currently have available to buy here

 Photographs: Samantha Jones Photography