NEW YORK – Originally developed in 1907 for use in the automotive and electrical industries by Leo Baekeland, a scientist working in Yonkers, N.Y., Bakelite was an early form of plastic that was not only a great insulator as it didn’t conduct electricity, but also it proved to be the perfect medium for costume jewelry.
Known as the world’s first synthetic plastic, the heat-resistant properties and hard nature of Bakelite extended its usefulness outside the industrial arena to the domestic. Easily molded and yet hard enough to be cut and polished, Bakelite was used in everything from kitchenware and clocks to toys, radios and was mass-produced into a full range of costume jewelry.
Bakelite jewelry reached its heyday in the 1920s, serving as an affordable and attractive material for costume jewelry. By the 1950s, it was available in several colors as well as translucent and marbled hues. Collectors today are still embracing the retro appeal of Bakelite pieces, which often had bold designs and unlike injection-molded plastic pieces could be carved out of stock pieces of Bakelite.
Many companies produced Bakelite jewelry and came up with fanciful names for the colors and designs such as Egg Yolk, Spinach, Salmon and Butterscotch. Combining colors for a marbling effect resulted in delicious sounding names like Mississippi Mud and Chocolate Sundae. Rare but equally desirable were pieces made of clear Bakelite in tinted shades such as Cherry Juice and Root Beer.
The years 1920 to 1935, at the height of the Art Deco period, were the peak years for Bakelite jewelry. Even haute couture icon Coco Chanel debuted her own line of Bakelite in 1927 and was photographed several times wearing Bakelite pieces. During the Depression years, American women could afford a colorful and fun piece of Bakelite that was reasonably priced to dress up their wardrobe. When World War II began, most of the Bakelite manufacturers switched gears to making plastic items to support the war effort. After the war ended, plastics technology had moved in new directions and Bakelite was rendered passé.
Bracelets were probably the most prolific form of Bakelite jewelry and heavily carved examples are among the most desirable. Chunky bracelets featuring several colors of Bakelite also are highly coveted, such as the so-named Philadelphia Bakelite bracelet, circa 1935, which featured triangular or wedge-shaped sections in hues of yellow, red and green that were affixed to the bracelet body which itself was usually done in Butterscotch Bakelite. These bracelets got their name from an auction in Philadelphia that took place in 1985 and included two of these colorful bracelets. In March 2010, Skinner Inc. in Boston sold one for $2,600. Bakelite pieces tend to bring several hundred dollars for pins while necklaces and bracelets, especially in rare or desirable styles, can bring several thousand dollars today.
Polka-dot patterns were popular in bracelets and could be created either by laminating the dots or painting them on by hand. Also desirable were pieces made in zigzag layers of complementary colors, instead of a solid color.
Buyers should beware of what is called “fakelite” (faux Bakelite ) and make sure they’re buying the real thing instead of later reproductions, easy enough to replicate with plastic. Bakelite pieces have a certain weight and density to them and when rubbed or placed in hot water, they give off a formaldehyde-like or camphor smell. Celluloid and Lucite were also plastics made into jewelry but are lighter than Bakelite pieces. Jewelry dealers are reporting that fakers have found ways to pass the hot water test and recommend buyers purchase from reputable sources.
From having a retro appeal to their cheerful and whimsical nature, these brightly colored baubles continue to delight collectors today.