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.
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Ruse on the Loose: Costume jewelry sparkles for Sparta womanDaily Record, January 17th
"I do a 100-year history in my jewelry lectures. I take them from 1880 to 1980. And I do a display so I have the pieces displayed and people can come and look at it. If they want to see Bakelite I'll show them. It's a four-hour show and it's...Read more
Alexis Bittar Marks Major Milestone With One-of-a-Kind CollectionElle (blog), January 17th
His design innovation was to fuse the ideology of Bakelite jewelry with the applications of Lalique glass, using an industrial material to create beautifully colored, semitranslucent pieces. "Most plastics are injection molded," he explains. "So it's...Read more
RI Beauty Expert: Pin it! Brooches Are Not Just for GranniesGoLocalProv, January 16th
Look for vintage animal pins or Bakelite in unusual carved shapes. The Corner Cupboard in North ... Antique shops generally know the value of the jewelry they sell so this is where real treasures with history are. For affordable luxe, hunt for...Read more
Catalin: The Crown Jewel Of Table RadiosWSHU, January 6th
It also means that no two Catalin sets will have exactly the same marble pattern. Like Bakelite, Catalin could be polished to a magnificent shine. Apart from radio cabinets, many small items such as costume jewelry, hair barrettes, poker chips, trinket...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
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
Bonhams auctions vintage Bakelite jewelryLos Angeles Times (blog), December 14th
Bakelite jewelry was one of the only affordable accessories for women during the Great Depression, but it's expected to fetch a pretty penny at auction this week. Bonhams will auction off close to 300 pieces of Bakelite -- molded baubles made from an...Read more