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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Recent News: Bakelite Costume Jewelry

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Belle Kogan, Godmother of American Industrial Design
Core77.com, May 26th

She was also acknowledged as an early adopter of prewar plastics, using them in designs for celluloid toilet sets and clocks, and in Bakelite jewelry. Kogan's Quacker electric alarm clock, designed for Telechron Company in 1934. The case is made of ...Read more

Midcentury Modern
Sacramento Magazine, May 22nd

The turquoise ceramic ashtrays, the signs-of-the-zodiac coffee mugs, the Bakelite bangles. ... This reminds me of growing up,'” says Tracy, 38, strolling about displays of carefully curated furniture, home decor, clothes and jewelry from the '50s, '60s...Read more

Holy Grail Vintage
Austin Monthly, May 16th

Her first collection was Bakelite jewelry and her most recent passion is Outsider Art sculptures and busts. Jennifer was a founding member of the Austin Craft Mafia and the woman behind Naughty Secretary Club jewelry. For Jennifer you can expect unique ...Read more

The Late Albert Maysles' Iris Embraces the Creative Life
Dallas Observer, May 13th

Iris Apfel isn't exactly a household name, unless we're talking about very stylish households. From 1950 to 1992 Apfel ran Old World Weavers, the business she co-founded with her husband, Carl, which faithfully re-created antique textiles for use in...Read more

Alliston Historical Society explores world of antiques
Simcoe.com, May 10th

A jewelry loop is used to magnify the symbols and markings on the inside of rings and bracelets, scales are used to weigh metal. Real pearls feel slightly gritty to teeth and tongue. Bakelite (a synthetic resin) used to make bracelets and buttons has a...Read more

Iris Apfel, fashion icon
LA Weekly, April 29th

She also sells a line of costume jewelry on the Home Shopping Network. Apfel sometimes packs more into a day than younger, sturdier souls might attempt in a week, and people who care about fashion adore her at least partly for her classic New York ...Read more

Darling of sci-fi movies, Alexis Bittar went from street sales to sculpt a ...
Waterbury Republican American, April 27th

Lucite is futuristic, and I liked the material; I used what was done with Bakelite in the '30s, where they hand sculpted it. Because Lucite is clear, I like the idea of treating the material as an art medium that can be sculpted to anything you want...Read more

Alexis Bittar Marks Major Milestone With One-of-a-Kind Collection
Elle (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