The Beauty of Bakelite Jewelry

By Robert Reed
   After all these years the beauty of Bakelite jewelry with its smooth and sleek contours and its flowing colors of autumn remain as charming as it was decades ago.
   Ironically one of the world’s first true plastics, invented almost by accident, rose to glory as perhaps the most endearing type of costume jewelry of the 20th century.
   Bakelite was more or less born during the summer of 1907 as Dr. Leo Hendrick Baekeland was searching in New York state for a synthetic shellac. Instead of a substitute for shellac, Dr. Baekeland ended up with a remarkable plastic.
   The doctor’s plastic was technically speaking a thermosetting material, meaning that when it was heated under pressure in a mold it became a very hard and heat-resistant substance. Moreover it was durable and readily accommodated various dyes.
   Basically what Dr. Baekeland had achieved was simply a chemical reaction created by combining elements of phenol and formaldehyde. In fact it was initially patented two years later as Phenol Formaldehye under “heat and pressure.” Later the substance became formally Bakelite and in 1910 the General Bakelite Company was put into operation in New Jersey.
   Bakelite became an excellent material for electrical items, radio cases, automobile accessories, toys, and ultimately jewelry, too.
   The good news is that perhaps while it was there first, it was not the only so-called phenolic plastic on the marketplace. Other brands appearing included Agatine, Catalin, Durez, Durite, Gemstone, Marblette, and more.
   Different brands and similar materials led to confusion among consumers. In the book Plastic Passion author Steve Nankervis notes that for a time Bakelite was used by some to mean dark mottled and marbled plastics while the word phenolic was then used to describe the more translucent brighter colors.
   “This was not always technically correct,” notes the author, “but it worked in the marketplace.”
   Bakelite was in fact available in many strong colors including the ‘fall like’ choices of red, brown and yellow as well as black and maroon. Later more versatile colors such as ivory, blue and orange were achieved. At the height of its production, Bakelite jewelry could be created in ‘end of the day’ combinations of mixed colors. Additionally colors could be laminated into one another resulting in a polka dot effect in special cases.
   As early as the 1920s Bakelite jewelry was in production and generally well received. However, some historians credit the Great Depression of the 1930s with furthering the cause of such colorful plastic adornments.
   Writing in Popular Art Deco authors Robert Heide and John Gilman point out: “When the crash of 1929 was felt in the world jewelry markets, the value of expensive precious stones and metals also plummeted, and many of the previously well-to-do were forced to sell their treasures back to dealers for much less than they paid for them. At this low economic point, novelty plastic jewelry moved into a wide-open market with great success.”
   At any rate Bakelite jewelry with all of its figural shapes, fruits, vegetables, geometric designs, and cute little animals became the darling lady’s accessory wear during the 1930s and early 1940s.
   For a time it was fashionable for the working class as well as the well-to-do and appeared everywhere. Likewise it was sold from the swank shops like Sax Fifth Avenue to the thrifty five-and-dime stores of Woolworth’s.
   More than a decade of public popularity ended by the early 1940s when Bakelite and other plastic production turned from bangles and charm bracelet adornments to airplane and radio parts for the war effort.    By the end of World War II in the middle of the 1940s, jewelry manufacturers tended to move on to metal as a major element of fashionable jewelry rather than plastic. By the end of the 20th century Bakelite jewelry and all of its colorful charms had been rediscovered by collectors.
   Stretch or elastic bracelets defined by a “stretchie” belt buckle design were in demand. Parrott, dog, frog, and most any other animal design in the form of a Bakelite brooch had a renewed glamour. Figural people-type pins of soldiers, nurses, cowboys, dancers, and others were once again prized.
   A flag brooch with shield-shape and laminated stripes was a patriotic treasure. A Bakelite bangle with is laminated combinations of root beer swirl, marbled green, and butterscotch shades was a delight. And a Bakelite brooch in the form of a wide-brimmed hat in marbled yellow with four dangling cherries was a grand addition to any quality collection.
   Also highly regarded were works of designer Martha Sleeper who carved a small business into a major operation of the New England Novelty Company. A Sleeper designed Bakelite donkey, for example, might have tiny leather ears and painted accents. A giraffe created by Sleeper might have a swirled yellow body and in inset eye as a final touch.
   For the more elaborate tastes in Bakelite there are the hinged bangles with carvings and green and white rhinestone accents or the zigzag bangle with creamed corn and lime green along with a variety of other colors. Many such striking examples today, in excellent condition, sell for several hundreds of dollars each or more.
   Typically carved bracelets and bangles of Bakelite are valued somewhat higher than similar pieces of plain design. Figural brooch designs of both human and animal shapes remain high in demand, as are especially detailed Bakelite pieces with dangling attachments.
   Bakelite jewelry items can also be influenced by size and width, or the combination of colors into one item. Black and red individually are considered by some to be quite uncommon. The single use of blue is even more usual among Bakelite pieces of the past.
   A few guidelines for detecting ‘true’ Bakelite jewelry items:
   • Brisk rubbing should produce a musky scent of formaldehyde.
   • Rich autumn-like colors such as brown, red, and yellow usually prevail.
   • Bakelite having been cut from smooth sheets into blanks is typically seamless.
   • Over long periods, sunlight can darken previously brighter colors.
   Recommended reading: Collecting Art Plastic Jewelry by Leigh Leshner (Krause Books). Art Deco Identification and Price Guide, 2nd edition, by Tony Fusco (Avon Books).
   A youtube video to watch about bakelite:

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