Queen Victoria’s reign saw a world transformed by industrial and scientific progress. Breakthrough inventions of such far-reaching impact as steam-powered transportation, long-distance communication and mechanical mass-production ushered in the modern age at a dizzying speed. It was during this era that early semi-synthetic plastics were first formulated. Plastics are now ubiquitous, infiltrating every aspect of our lives; but in the Victorian era their qualities were exciting and new.
A plastic is defined as a substance that is made malleable by heat and permanently hardens upon cooling. To shape plastic the material is heated, formed in a mold, and cooled to set. Once set, some plastics may also be carved with additional fine detail. Horn and tortoiseshell are natural plastics; the new Victorian semi-synthetic plastics were derived from natural substances impacted by chemical actions. They were quickly put to many purposes both household and industrial, not least of which was the creation of beautiful jewelry.
Gutta-percha was the first of these new, semi-synthetic plastics. Gutta-percha is made from latex derived from the sap of the Palaquium, Isonandra and Dichopsis gutta trees found in the Malaysian archipelago, one of the many outposts of the far-reaching British Empire. Gutta-percha’s earliest appearance occurred in 1822, and by the 1840’s it was being used for everything from dental appliances to whole pieces of furniture. In fact, the demand for gutta-percha was too high to be sustainable and by the end of the Victorian era the trees were harvested nearly to extinction. This detail is useful for dating and identification: if an ornament is made of gutta-percha it will date from this period. Its naturally occurring dark color made it an obvious choice for use in Victorian mourning jewelry as another, less-expensive alternative to jet. Gutta-percha was most commonly molded, but sometimes carved. Stronger than rubber, it holds finer, sharper detail than other plastics of the era. Like jet, it is light-weight and room temperature to the touch. In contrast to jet, it appears to be dull and oily. Gutta-percha releases an odor of burning rubber when immersed in warm water or subjected to gentle friction.
This example of Gutta-Percha shows a Cross in the form of tied sheaves of wheat. The wheat represents a long life, productive and abundant. And was a common symbol in the sentimental Victorian Era.
The picture below shows the up close details of the Gutta-Percha cross in the photo above, showing you what to expect when you examine a piece with your loupe.
The introduction of Vulcanite, also known as Ebonite or hard rubber, was the next phase in the evolution of plastics. Vulcanite is derived from natural rubber which is hardened through the addition of sulphur. Vulcanized rubber was patented in the mid 1840’s: in Britain by Thomas Hancock and in the U.S. by Charles Goodyear. During the Victorian period Vulcanite was used in a wide variety of household products such as fountain pens, candlesticks and telephones; it is still being used today for a variety of industrial and household purposes. Vulcanite, like gutta-percha, is naturally dark in color making it an ideal choice for use in mourning jewelry. Vulcanite is always molded; therefore, a Vulcanite locket will always display a clean interior design. The links of a Vulcanite chain were also molded, sliced open on one end, and then shaped around the next link through the application of heat. Vulcanite’s sulphur content provides additional clues to its identification. Over time, and if exposed to heat and light, Vulcanite may be identified by a sulphurous bloom that gives the piece a dusty, khaki color. The application of friction will produce the faint odor of sulphur. A Vulcanite streak test results in a light brown streak on unglazed porcelain.
The picture below shows an example of a Vulcanite brooch. Notice how the parts are extruded, and in the case of the circular pieces heated into the shape. The pieces are then held together using small brass screws. Vulcanite was a more affordable material marketed to the lower classes of Victorian Society, so the findings will be in less expensive base metals and black glass was often used for details. The contrast between the black glass rounds and the body of the brooch really show how the Vulcanite attains a Khaki color over the years.
Celluloid, patented in 1869, was modern plastic’s next stage. Celluloid is created when cellulose (organic material such as cotton fiber or wood flour) is dissolved in nitric and sulphuric acids and camphor, and the resulting mixture is combined with oil. There are many different formulas used to create Celluloid, resulting in a wide variety of subtle colors and effects. Celluloid was used in all kinds of jewelry, but its ability to emulate the delicately mottled patterns found in natural tortoiseshell made it a fine material for use in mourning jewelry. It’s beauty and versatility caused Celluloid’s popularity to survive well into the 20th century. Celluloid is more affordable than tortoiseshell and horn, but ornaments made of this material utilize the same level of craftsmanship as its more expensive counterparts. Celluloid is cut or hot-pressed from blocks which are formed from laminated sheets; therefore, faint stripes may be visible in Celluloid forms. Celluloid can yellow with age. It is highly flammable and with the application of gentle friction it releases a subtle yet distinct odor of mothballs.
This photo shows a common use of Celluloid in the late Victorian era. These large hair combs were very fashionable, and an acceptable item to wear in the later stages of mourning. But until the invention and commercial use of celluloid they were crafted of the more expensive Tortoise Shell and therefore financially out of reach for the majority of Victorian ladies.
The photo below is a close up of the celluloid hair comb. This is what you should expect to see when you examine Celluloid with your loupe, molded details with softened edges. Hand carved Tortoise Shell will have crisper lines and more irregular mottling.
Mourning jewelry utilized the most modern of its era’s materials, yet perhaps the material most characteristic of mourning jewelry is the most ancient: human hair. Our next blog entry will discuss the art of Victorian hair work.
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