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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Lasting Memories Created From Jewelry Made at the Shore
The SandPaper, August 14th

He is well known for his writing talents; not so well known is his talent as an artist and, most recently, an obsessive maker of Bakelite and quahog jewelry. Mann digs and collects old bottles, and while digging in old trash heaps in the Pines, he...Read more

Fashion and Interior Design
Weekly Alibi, August 12th

The shop is chock-full of vintage t-shirts, upcycled vintage jewelry, '70s dresses and, unlike many of its sister businesses, it has a plentiful men's section. The shop dog takes naps behind the counter while David Bowie plays softly in the background...Read more

The Brooklyn Books, Art, Photos and Design Expo
Fine Books & Collections Magazine, August 12th

Greenpoint, Brooklyn NY—August 2015—More than 140 dealers from 21 states and two foreign countries will display their books, fine prints, art, photos, modern design and ephemera, at the Brooklyn Books, Art, Photos and Design Expo (BrooklynBAPD) on ...Read more

Williamsburg exhibit reviews folk jewelry spawned by the Great Depression
Daily 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 World
Metropolis 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 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

Bakelite's retro appeal means big bucks for plastic looking stuff
HULIQ, 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 jewelry
Los 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