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about plastics

'plas-tik – from Latin plasticus, from Greek plastikos, from plastos ("molded"), from plassein ("to mold")

A Plastic Timeline

1862   Parkesine
In London, 1862, Alexander Parkes unveils the first-ever man-made plastic. Dubbed "Parkesine," it fails due to high costs.
More about Parkesine »

1869   Xylonite
After the failure of Parkesine, Daniel Spill tries to manufacture a similar material named Xylonite. The company goes bankrupt in 1874.
More about Xylonite »

1869   Celluloid
The first major plastic, celluloid is discovered in 1869 by American John W. Hyatt. It is manufactured in 1872 during a time of high demand for an ivory replacement.
More about celluloid and the exploding billiard balls »

1897   Galalith
Two German researchers, trying to create a white chalkboard, mix casein (milk protein) with formaldehyde and create a new plastic called Galalith (from the Greek gala, milk, and lithos, stone). It is also manufactured under the name Erinoid. Casein plastics are still used today, mainly in the production of buttons.

1909   Bakelite
The first completely synthetic man-made substance, Bakelite is invented in 1909 by independent New York chemist Leo H. Baekeland. The "material of a thousand uses" is used to make everything from car parts to jewellery, but jewellery sales are suspended in 1942 in order to concentrate supplies on the war effort. Bakelite pieces are now valuable collectibles. Andy Warhol was an avid collector and, when he died in 1987, his pieces sold for record prices at Sotheby's.
More about Bakelite »

1920s   Plastic enters haute couture when Coco Chanel includes bakelite jewellery in her accessories collection.

1927   Catalin
When Bakelite's 1910 patent expires in 1927, the Catalin corporation starts making the same substance under the name "Catalin" and adds fifteen new colours to the colour range. 70% of the "bakelite" remaining today is Catalin. Also suspends jewellery sales in 1942 (see above). Plastic is the perfect medium for the Art Deco period, when bold, colourful, geometric designs are popular.
More about Catalin »

1931   Lucite/Plexiglas/Perspex
"Lucite" is the brand name of a polyacrylic discovered by DuPont in 1931. Around the same time, an identical polyacrylic is developed by the Rohm & Haas Chemical Company and named "Plexiglas." In the UK and other European nations, it is generally known as "Perspex." DuPont markets Lucite jewellery after the war. More about Lucite and Plexiglas »

Post WWII   Thanks in part to improved technology — i.e., better plastics — Bakelite and Catalin become obsolete.

1953   Lexan
Daniel Fox, a chemist at General Electric, discovers a polycarbonate resin thermoplastic that looks like acrylic but is much more durable (almost bulletproof). A patent is filed in 1955 and it is given the brand name "Lexan." Familiar products made of Lexan include Apple's iBook and iPod and Naglene water bottles.

1988   After his death in 1987, Andy Warhol's extensive bakelite jewellery collection sells for record prices at Sotheby's.

1998   In May, the bakelite "Philadelphia bracelet" sells for US$17,000 at a Treadway/Toomey auction.

Today   Bakelite collecting is still going strong, but this website tries to focus on all the other types of plastic rings out there!

Scientifically Speaking...

Plastic is a polymer made by mixing a binder with a plasticizer, fillers, pigments and other additives. Polymers have the advantage of being light yet strong, good insulators and resistant to most chemicals. Basically, plastics are synthetic resins (an example of a natural resin would be amber, which is fossilized tree resin; tortoiseshell is another).

There are two basic types of plastic:

  1. thermoplastic – can be repeatedly softened and remolded by heat and pressure (e.g. celluloid, lucite)

  2. thermosetting – cannot be resoftened after being subjected to heat and pressure (e.g. bakelite)

The Carrotbox is a site dedicated to all those wonderful rings made of glass, lucite, resin, plastic, jade, wood, bakelite and even stone — anything, as long as it's not metal! Visit the shop!

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