The Early Development of Polymer Clay Bead-Making: Part One

This is Part One of the speech delivered at Synergy: the 2008 National Polymer Clay Guild Conference held in Baltimore, Maryland last week.  The entire speech will be publish on Polymer Art Archive in serial form.

1 toopsPolymer clay developed initially for making dolls and puppets but it wasn’t until it was embraced as a bead and jewelry-making compound that it blossomed into the movement we see today.  Although polymer clay was initially developed in Europe, its use for making beads on that continent appears to have been limited to isolated cases at most. It was not until the 1980s that this 20th Century material was embraced independently by a handful of American artists, launching a vigorous polymer bead- and jewelry-making movement. Because this new medium lacked a history of technical expertise to inform those working with it, these artists initially adapted techniques from other media, including glass, natural clay, and metal. 5 CZC button sandwich

Technical innovation specific to polymer clay, however, developed rapidly and a high level of expertise by professional artists exists today.  Polymer clay’s popular and critical recognition as an artistic bead- and jewelry-making medium has now spread, making it a globalized bead material.  The text of my complete presentation examines only early work from the 1980’s and will be published here in serial form . However, the images which accompany this first installment will provide a look at the more mature work of some of the early pioneers who are to be discussed at length in later installments.

The Definition and Invention of Polymer Clay

3 dustin odalesquesPolymer clay is a sculptable material based on polymer polyvinyl chloride and one or more of several kinds of liquid plasticizer to keep it workable until cured.  It usually contains no refractory clay materials but is called “clay” because it can be manipulated in the same manner as natural clay.  By the addition of pigments, it is available in numerous colors and other individualized colors may be created by kneading the available colors together in much the same manner as one mixes paint. It hardens irreversibly to become stiff (while continuing to maintain some flexibility) by curing at a temperature created in a typical home oven. 4 allenThis temperature is generally 275 degrees Fahrenheit or 135 degrees Celsius for 15 minutes per ¼ inch (0.6 cm) thickness. Importantly, polymer clay does not shrink or change texture during this process. It may be re-cured an unlimited number of times with no adverse effect. After curing, it may be sanded, carved, drilled, or polished.

2 voulkos translucentIn the late 1930s, Fifi Kruse Rehbinder, daughter of popular German doll maker  Kathe Kruse, discovered polymer clay accidentally as a chemical by-product. Making doll heads and mosaics with it, Fifi popularized it from the 1940s through the 1960s, developing a limited color range and selling it under the name Fifi Mosaik.  In 1965, Eberhard Faber GmbH produced this product under license and began wide distribution under the name Fimo.

10 Brands of clayThe American brand Sculpey was originally developed by Zenith Products Co. as a thermal insulator in the 1940s, but proved unuseful for that purpose. After the wife of a company employee made a small figure from it, it began being sold in 1967 in white only with colors being developed and marketed under the name Sculpey III in 1984 by Polyform Products Co. 

Cernit, a similar product, was created in 1970 by a professor at the University of Prague, Czechoslovakia, who was also a puppet maker  and is now manufactured in Germany in many colors.  Other brands of polymer clay have been developed as well and today the leading brands include Premo, Fimo, Kato Polyclay, Sculpey III, Cernit, Modello, and Formello.

7 hughes ivory imitativesThe original applications of polymer clay seemed to be for making dolls, figurines, doll house food and miniatures as a hobbiest’s medium.  Although it is likely that some Europeans made beads with Fimo in the years following its discovery, a collective effort by a number of professional artists focused on the medium didn’t begin until the 1980s in the United States. 9 Ford/ForlanoThe qualities that most inspired these artists about colored polymer clay as a bead medium were: its ability to imitate, with remarkable verisimilitude, a wide variety of other materials; its ease of manipulation with few or ordinary tools; and its unique ability to meld colors together in a molten glass-like manner especially in the millefiore (or canework) technique.

8 M Grove

Kathleen received her Master of Fine Arts degree in ceramics and sculpture from Arizona State University in 1979 and has been a professional artist since that time. She was introduced to polymer clay while a student overseas in 1972, began working with it in small ways again while living overseas in 1981-2, and then began working with it more seriously to make jewelry in 1986. She taught the first workshop in the US on using it as a fine craft medium in 1987 and wrote the first professional article on it in ORNAMENT Magazine in 1988.