Perspex trench art sweetheart jewellery
Most people imagine that ‘trench art’ items, including sweetheart jewellery, were each individually, handmade by a soldier, sailor or airman for his loved ones far away. While some was made this way, the reality is often a little bit different. Large quantities of trench art were made in small cottage industries during the First and Second World War. Known also as the ‘foreigner’ trade during the Second World War, the items were made by men with access to specialist equipment, such as drills, vices and metal cutting equipment, often from units such as engineers, RAAF ground crew, dental units and the like.
One of the most popular types of jewellery made during the Second World War was that made from pieces of Perspex. It was scrounged from damaged aircraft and was a popular, easily worked, material. Perspex jewellery was made in a variety of locations, including Australia and the Middle East, but based on the Memorial’s collection and other items found online, most Australian Perspex jewellery appears to have been made in the South West Pacific.
On 13 January 1945 an article titled New Guinea’s Underground Traders by Arthur Hausler in The Sydney Morning Herald detailed the enterprises found in New Guinea. These small two or three man ‘factories’ produced a variety of jewellery which was then sold by a salesman, also known as a 'strafer'. He also took orders for items to be made and it was possible to get custom made, personalised items specially made by one of the factories.
The Perspex was cut into small pieces a few inches in size then shaped – hearts and ovals were popular. The item would then have one of three different processes done. Either a badge or other item (such as a crucifix) was heated and pressed into the back of the Perspex, leaving an impression. Sometimes this was left unfinished but usually the impression was painted, often in detail, with a background colour painted over the reverse.
A smaller number of pieces had images scratched or engraved into the reverse; these lines were often highlighted with gold coloured paint.
Others had pieces of engraved aluminium (again scavenged from damaged aircraft), beaten down decorated coins, or cut up pieces of coins or badges embedded into the Perspex. This occurred after the Perspex had been cut and filed into shape. The piece for embedding was positioned on the Perspex and the item placed in a small iron press. The Perspex was heated until the plastic melted and the metal embedded.
Once the decoration was added, the front of the Perspex was polished. emery paper was preferred but as it was difficult to come by, a piece of cloth lubricated with oil and fine sand could be used. This process took a great deal of time but created a beautiful finish.
It then had a backing, pin, hook or chains attached to turn the decorated piece of Perspex into jewellery. It was sold and sent home by the serviceman to be worn and cherished by family and friends.