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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Weekly Roundup of eBay Vintage Jewelry FindsHuffington Post, October 2nd
Don't miss the pair of antique carved cameo bracelets, the 14k diamond tennis bracelet, the 1980s Christian Dior necklace, the 1994 Chanel necklace, the Navajo wide silver thunderbird cuff bracelet, the Pal Kepenyes necklace and the Bakelite heart and...Read more
Tiffany silver pitcher brings big moneyTyler Morning Telegraph, September 29th
Silver tea sets, vases, jewelry and other objects can be sold at many jewelry stores and antiques shops for the meltdown value. .... n Radio, Emerson, AU-190, Catalin, Bakelite, tube, mini-tombstone style, butterscotch, 1930s, 10 1/4 x 7 1/2 inches, $1...Read more
First Look: MarniNew York Times, September 27th
The first look, a relatively staid forest green tunic with an overlaying pinafore, was followed by a controlled explosion of primary colors, graphically shaped separates and texture blocking. Bags popped, as did Bakelite bangles, amid the cool marbled...Read more
Kovels antiques: Silver tea sets and other objectsObserver-Reporter, September 26th
Silver tea sets, vases, jewelry and other objects can be sold at many jewelry stores and antiques shops for the meltdown value. .... Radio, Emerson, AU-190, Catalin, Bakelite, tube, mini-tombstone style, butterscotch, 1930s, 10 1/4 x 7 1/2 inches, $1,035...Read more
ASK THE EBAY QUEEN: How do I deal with a demanding buyer?Ottawaherald.com, September 17th
Bakelite jewelry is highly collectible. If you are ever lucky enough to come across a bakelite “gumdrop” bangle, you might be able to sell it for quite a bit on eBay! Rare Red and Cream Vintage Bakelite Bow-Tie Gumdrop Bangle Bracelet Late 1950s SOLD: ...Read more
Williamsburg exhibit reviews folk jewelry spawned by the Great DepressionDaily Press, July 11th
Born in the late 1920s, Thunderbird jewelry was partly a response to the increasing cost and scarcity of such traditional materials as shell and jet — and partly a response to seeing the new yet inexpensive Bakelite jewelry worn by so many visitors in...Read more
Alexis Bittar's Material WorldMetropolis Magazine, April 1st
“It was counterintuitive,” Bittar says of his decision to fuse the ideology of Bakelite jewelry (which he'd already experimented with) and the applications of Lalique glass. “But I always wanted to explore new materials.” The bold, color-centric...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