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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10th Vintage Clothing, Accessories, Textiles, Jewelry Show & Sale
The Daily Voice, April 14th

The list continues with vintage purses and beaded bags; vintage costume jewelry, Bakelite, silver, Native American and fine antique jewelry; dress patterns; dressing table accessories; perfume bottles; buttons; eye cups; belts; hats; ties and shoes...Read more

Ravenswood Antique Mart Owner: Quality Used to Matter - Not Anymore
DNAinfo, April 2nd

When she died, she left Vlachos a good portion of her jewelry and accessories, several pieces of which are on display behind glass at the Mart. He keeps a framed photo of Drake in the shop — the ... Though the handbag could easily join other Bakelite...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

Button up! Clubs explore the beauty of buttons
The Sheboygan Press, March 31st

Some are made of precious gems, like diamonds, and are as expensive as fine jewelry. "Collecting buttons is ... Then came the Bakelite buttons, which were common in the United States from the 1920s through the 1940s, said Mary Bloczynski of Green Lake...Read more

Artful Shopper: Judy's Antiques and Jewelry
The News-Press, February 27th

We have hard to find items like Bakelite, amber and fine jewelry. We have an antique 1900s Christmas tree in the window with vintage Christmas decorations and we keep it up year round. Anything special for Mothers Day? We have a lot of interesting...Read more

'Restless Pack Rat' Asks $13M for Collectible-Filled Townhome
Curbed NY, February 10th

Robert Lerch is an ear, nose, and throat doctor, sure, but he's also an avid collector of... everything. And his townhouse on East 83rd Street is packed to the brim with "with early-20th-century Bakelite jewelry, Art Nouveau bronze frogs and dragons...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

Antiques expert: It pays to know
Journal and Courier, October 17th

Somehow, Wanat spotted Bakelite — an early plastic resin now-turned-collectible costume jewelry that peaked in popularity during the 1930s and '40s — in a locked glass case near a fur-trimmed vintage jacket that had the jaunty '60s imprint of former...Read more