Bakelite was an early plastic resin, developed by Leo Baekeland in 1907. Originally used for industrial purposes thanks to its ability to withstand heat, molded Bakelite and its cast cousin, Catalin, made the jump to costume jewelry in the 1920s and had their heyday in the 1930s and ’40s.
Costume-jewelry manufacturers were attracted to Bakelite for numerous reasons. First, it was hard enough to cut and polish, which made it a terrific choice for everything from brooches to beads to bracelets, its most popular application. Techniques ranged from scratching the surface lightly in repeated or decorative patterns to outright carving. Some carved pieces have deep valleys and furrows; others sport patterns that suggest the outside of a pineapple or the facets of a jewel.
Equally appealing was Bakelite’s range of colors, which were given names like Creamed Corn, Butterscotch, Egg Yolk, and Salmon. Some types of Bakelite were marbled—Mississippi Mud, Creamed Spinach, and Chocolate Sundae capture the character of these mixed hues beautifully. Less common was translucent Bakelite in Root Beer, Lime Jell-O, and Cherry Juice.
While some Bakelite costume jewelry was fashioned from solid blocks of a single color, many more began as laminated pieces, in which horizontal or zigzag layers of complementary colors were combined. Sometimes pieces were laminated to create polka dots; other times polka dots were hand painted on an object’s surface, and in the 1950s polka dots and gumdrop shapes were injected into Bakelite during the manufacturing process itself.
Of the brooches and pins, one of the most popular treatments during the Art Deco 1930s was to combine Ebony Bakelite—an imitation of the jet pieces from the Victorian era—with rhinestones or inlaid silver. Egyptian motifs were in vogue, as were pins in the shapes of animals (cats, camels, dogs, birds) and plants, especially flowers and clusters of dangling cherries. Especially collectible are the World War II era MacArthur Hearts, which consisted of a 3-by-3-inch key-shaped pin, from which dangled a puffy red heart with a keyhole in its center—it was sold with a card that read "He holds the key to my heart."
The most famous use of Bakelite in jewelry was as bracelets. Many of these were formed of large, block- or medallion-shaped beads that were strung together on strips of elastic. Other Bakelite bracelets were hinged, carved into the shapes of serpents, or left open at the back so they could be easily slipped onto a wrist. Some bracelets incorporated chrome accents into their designs, others combined Bakelite with Czech glass.
But the most collectible types of Bakelite bangles are the so-called Philadelphia bracelets, which take their name from a Philadelphia auction in 1985 that featured two of these remarkable pieces. Philadelphia bracelets are always laminated in colors that include green, red, and yellow. The best pieces are hinged, and feature either multicolor laminated wedges or individually colored slices that have been glued onto the bracelet body, which is usually a rich shade of Butterscotch.
Best of the Web (“Hall of Fame”)
Researching Costume Jewelry
Art Deco 1910-1939
Emerald City Vintage Costume Jewelry
Morning Glory Antiques and Jewelry
All About Jewels Dictionary
Cathy Gordon's Jewelry Gallery
Clubs & Associations
Most watched eBay auctions
Recent News: Bakelite Costume Jewelry
Source: Google News
The Ghosts of BhopalToronto Star, November 21st
ever-present Union Carbide products included the Bakelite trademark, ensuring the company's growing presence in the American home via that ubiquitous, milky-toned synthetic plastic used in the manufacture of a broad range of goods, from jewelry to...Read more
Present the perfect presentAlton Telegraph, November 20th
Hand-poured soy wax candles are made by Washington Avenue Post, a small shop in St. Louis; and ConArtist, Connie Copley of St. Louis makes re-purposed jewelry (necklaces, bracelets, brooches and earrings) out of vintage Bakelite items. Fiber artists ...Read more
Costume jewelry has intrigued women for generationsHuntington Herald Dispatch, November 15th
According to Ann Koski of the Wisconsin Historical Museum and noted jewelry specialist the difference between costume and antique jewelry has a lot to do with the date 1930. Though there was inexpensive jewelry created prior to this date it is after...Read more
Gem of an auction supports Gem of a schoolAlbuquerque Journal, November 13th
This PTA collects things you want. Someone donated a museum-quality antique ceremonial Chinese cap and Bill Siegal's gallery gave a little ancient, finely woven basket from Africa. Vintage Bakelite and handmade silver jewelry, ethnic beads and great pots...Read more
Add a little sparkle at jewelry saleBoston Globe, November 5th
Newtonville jewelry shop DIVA starts its semiannual sale on Saturday. Thousands of pieces including antique cameos, Bakelite, Egyptian revival pieces, gold and platinum rings, vintage and contemporary necklaces, and more will be marked down 15 to 25 ...Read more
Washington-area obituaries of noteWashington Post, October 15th
She co-authored two books, “The Bakelite Jewelry Book “(1988) and “Victorian Jewelry: Unexplored Treasures” (1991), and was a fashion writer and illustrator at the New Zealand-based fashion magazine Lucire from 2000 to 2008. In a review of the “The ...Read more
Manufacturers' Monthly Material of the Month part 1: BakeliteManufacturers' Monthly, September 11th
“Electrical insulation and lighting was always a standard in bakelite originally. There's also still a strong market in Bakelite jewelry.” At the time of writing, a search of “Bakelite” brought up 1,899 matches in eBay's Australian site, with jewellery...Read more
Bakelite's retro appeal means big bucks for plastic looking stuffHULIQ, July 25th
Today's “retro” appeal of old “Bakelite” products – such as costume jewelry and old plastic looking telephones, radios, boxes and other early 20th century items – makes it a “very hot” antique and collectible, explained the four experts on the new PBS...Read more