They say necessity is the mother of invention, so perhaps it should come as no surprise that it was $50-per-ounce silver that inspired Long Beach, California-based artist Karen McCreary to test the waters with plastic. “I started experimenting with acrylic in college,” she remembers. “I was taking jewelry classes, and silver was very expensive at the time — it had gone up to $50 an ounce — so we experimented with other materials: copper, titanium, niobium… But I got interested in plastic.”
That interest never waned. “I think the main thing that has kept me working with plastic is the freedom of it,” she says, noting that the material’s workability and versatility were one of the initial factors that drew her to it.
Even more important, though, is the way light interacts with acrylic. “What drew me to it in the first place is its transparency — the way it picks up and reflects light, and the way color reflects in it,” she says. “I’ve experimented with it using matte areas opposed to shiny, so you get different qualities of translucency, and I do a lot of pieces with angled and faceted edges, which tend to pick up and reflect light [like] a faceted gemstone. And when you round the plastic, it has properties that catch the light and bend it, like when you look through water.”
McCreary is no stranger to traditional jewelry making. She took her first job with a jewelry manufacturer in the early 1970s, and spent several years casting, mold making, and model making for jewelers while she studied for her B.F.A. But when, after graduation, she decided to design and sell her own work, she turned to the material she had experimented with in college.Her current work features clear acrylic with colored lacquer applied to the edges or carved areas, and 22k gold leaf applied over the lacquer. “When you look at the piece, mainly what you’re seeing is the clear of the acrylic, the whitish translucence, and the 22k gold leaf — and then the color bleeds out from behind it,” she says. “It makes the color seem a little more mysterious.”
“When I started making my own jewelry to sell, it just seemed a little easier to make a stock of jewelry in less expensive material,” she says. “You could be a little more experimental because the material costs were not as high, and if you made a piece that didn’t sell or that people weren’t attracted to, you didn’t feel like you had a lot invested in keeping that piece.”
Plastic still carries some stigma as a jewelry material, she admits. “I have definitely heard, ‘That’s only plastic.’ But at the other end of the spectrum, I have people look and go, ‘Wow, your work is so reasonable,'” she says. “There is still a bias, and there are probably still a lot of people who have a harder time understanding jewelry that isn’t made of silver or gold. But people have been doing wonderful costume jewelry [in plastic] since the ’20s, and a lot of celluloid from the ’20s and ’30s is extremely collectible, so that’s maybe changed the market a little.”
And, she says, the advantages outweigh the disadvantages. “When people look at my work, they are not really that focused on the material itself,” she says. “They’re looking at the form, the shape, the color, and how it reflects.”
They’re also attracted to plastic’s light weight and wearability, she says. “I try to think about that, especially with earrings, and people really appreciate that. They can buy larger, showier earrings that are very light and comfortable.
“There are wonderful designers doing large, substantial, and experimental pieces in fine materials, but I’ve always been drawn to plastic,” she concludes. “It seems that just when I think I’ve done about everything and pushed it as far as I can, I’ll be working on something and think, ‘What if I try this?’ It’s such an amazingly versatile material that it’s managed to hold my interest for 20-plus years.”