Monday, March 23, 2015

Plastic Fantastic

As a teenager back in the early 80's I was a bit obsessed with vintage clothing. I loved the old family photos of my tiny Granny, Alice, in all her Flapper finery and so the roaring Twenties was a firm favourite of mine. Luckily for me, vintage clothing was cheap and easy to find at village fete's and jumble sales. I even had several very good examples of Victorian Mourning outfits that I just kept in the wardrobe because I couldn't squeeze my (then) slim size 8 body into them (because I had healthy 20th century ribs and shoulders!) - I think Victorian women must have had no bones at all. This was well before the days of Ebay and Car Boot Sales of course and the genuine article was very easy to tell from the reproductions made durning 60's/70's revivals.

Somewhere along the way I picked up 2 very long Flapper style necklaces, in both cases the bead sizes graduated to a huge 2 inch central bead that weighted the whole thing down when worn. One was a kind of matt black and the other was a deep red like burgundy. I was disappointed to discover that they were plastic as I had naively hoped the black one might be Whitby Jet. Jet was valuable and collectible even back then of course, the kind from Whitby is most often a matt or satin finish and flat black, unlike the very shiny and sometimes iridescent jet from France. Think of Victorian Mourning Jewellery and you are picturing Whitby Jet.

Anyhoo, my necklaces had a slightly off putting quality. When I wore either for an hour or more they gave off a faint chemical whiff which I found quite offensive. My friend's thought I was making it up and swore they couldn't smell it, but, as I was very prone to migraine's back then, often triggered by the slightest unpleasant aroma, I gradually stopped wearing my beloved beads. Eventually, disguarded and in a tangled mass along with other costume jewellery that had fallen from favour, I donated them to a charity shop. That was perhaps the late 80's and since then I have never stopped looking for something similar in glass or perhaps even jet or amber. I later learned that the red beads had been aping Cherry Amber, a rare and beautiful fossil and very expensive, probably more so than Whitby Jet. So, I have never been lucky enough to find less whiffy replacements and pretty much gave up the search many years ago.

Ironically, recovering from a migraine this weekend I went on a trawl through Ebays "vintage" jewellery. I discovered that my old dark red plastic necklace had actually been a very fine example of what is now rather confusingly termed "Cherry Amber Bakelite"; and the off-putting aroma the beads gave off when warmed by my skin was Formaldehyde! Eeeeuw! Even more confusingly, these RARE surviving examples of early plastic costume jewellery now regularly fetch more than genuine Amber. If I had kept the originals I could have sold them on Ebay tomorrow and bought several strands of the real non-smelly fossil Amber, madness! Of course, I am kicking myself and spent ages watching auctions and 'Buy it nows' and then went on a search of Etsy and similar market places but after managing to rack up about 35 very similar looking examples, all purporting to be genuine, I have decided to steer well clear. Two factors: (1) the smell, even if I was lucky enough to find a genuine Bakelite example as good as my 20's/80's original, I would still be bugged by the whiff... and - more likely - (2) I would probably wind up paying through the nose for a resin fake whipped up in a factory in Northern China a few months ago to meet the current demand. Even back in the 80's those red Bakelite beads were thin on the ground, so how come there are suddenly so many around? Don't forget that the Flapper look had big revivals in the 60's, 70's and 80's also...where were all these fine examples then? So if you are sat here reading this an worried about those gorgeous red beads around your neck... maybe just think of them as a lovely necklace rather than an investment and all will be fine. Me, well my nostrils would rather have Amber ;o)

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