I have a passion for plastic. More specifically, I have a passion for the plastic known as Bakelite. While I do sell other types of vintage jewelry. Such as rhinestone broaches and bracelets and enameled pins. Still, Bakelite jewelry fills most of my inventory.
When I set up at antiques shows curious shoppers often question me about the Bakelite jewelry I carry. Many expressing disbelief that “plastic” could be so expensive. Other shoppers just smile and run their hands over the bangles on display, looking to add to their collection. So what is this stuff that entrances so many, while leaving others shaking their heads?
Simply put, it is the world’s first totally synthetic plastic. Previous plastics were either entirely organic or contained organic components. Plastics such as celluloid, tortoiseshell, and gutta-percha. Items made from these plastics were flammable and became brittle over time. This limited their use to mainly decorative items, such as jewelry and dresser top items, or salt and pepper shakers.
The Early Days of Bakelite
Bakelite was invented in 1907 by Leo Baekeland, a Belgian scientist living in the U.S. It is a phenolic resin which after curing will not burn and cannot be softened or re-melted. It is warm to the touch, moisture resistant and polishes to a soft luster.
These qualities made this plastic the perfect material for so many things. Eventually earning the label “the plastic with a thousand uses”.
Since it could resist heat without melting or burning Bakelite was ideal to manufacture the first telephones, radios, stove knobs, and electric clocks. While also finding uses as drawer pulls, cutlery handles, desk and vanity sets, poker chips, umbrella handles, and on and on. As you can see, this invention was revolutionary to the US manufacturing industry.
Limited to a small palette of colors, the earliest Bakelite came in red, green, yellow, maroon, brown and black. Then in the early 1930s, there was a discovery of a similar phenolic resin by Catalin Corporation. The newer version allowing the production of over 200 transparent, translucent, opaque and marbleized colors. While also .creating a material that could be worked like wood.
It could be sawed, drilled and most significantly, it could be carved into intricate shapes. Drawn to this wonderful new material, Individual crafters and commercial designers alike let their creativity run wild. Thus began the introduction of Bakelite buttons, belt buckles and all of the marvelous Bakelite jewelry that we admire today.
The Growth and Demise of Bakelite
This craze for Bakelite coincided with the Great Depression. This plastic was inexpensive to manufacture and came in bright colors. While ranging in price from 5 cents for a plain bangle to $2 to $3 for a more intricately carved piece. Everyone could afford at least a couple of bangles or a broach. It was popular with rich and poor alike.
Then during WWII, manufacturers began making patriotic Bakelite broaches. Hearts, flags, small military figures with movable parts and lots more made in red, white and blue. These items were highly popular and people wore them to show their patriotism. Alas, the popularity began to wane in the early 1940s as another man-made plastic, Lucite, began to take its place. The production of Bakelite ended altogether in the late ’40s.
The Colors of Bakelite Through the Ages
Most everyone connects this type of vintage jewelry with the beautiful autumnal colors seen today. The warm yellows and oranges, hunter greens, chocolate browns, and deeply hued marbles we see in the bangles, brooches, and earrings.
So, would you be surprised if I told you that Bakelite was originally produced in pastels and jewel tones? The patriotic pin you see today in red, yellow and black was once red, white and blue. While pastel pinks and blues lay underneath some of today’s oranges and greens.
Many yellows were once white and the purples have turned into peanut butter. While many of the jewel tones, the deep greens, navy blues, and dark purples appear as black or almost black. Only the reds and licorice black appear today as they were first made.
So what happened to those original colors?
Most phenolic plastics had formaldehyde as part of their formula (no, wearing this jewelry will not hurt you!). As formaldehyde is exposed to sunlight, perfumes, hand creams, and body oils it forms a patina, much like certain metals do.
This patina forms on the surface of the bangle and changes the original color of the exterior. Yet patinas develop at different rates, depending on exposure, so two white bangles may show as two completely different shades of yellow.
This said if you compare the interior and exterior walls of a Bakelite bangle, you will often see a difference in color between the two.
A Final Word of Caution on Buying Bakelite
The popularity of Bakelite jewelry tends to run in cycles. With the cycle right now trending to a tremendous amount of interest in collecting and wearing this vintage plastic. My advice to the novice collector is to be VERY CAREFUL when you start out.
Some antiques and vintage jewelry dealers simply lack information to determine what actually is Bakelite and will sell an item that they honestly believe is genuine when it is not.
Also, real Bakelite is still being made in some countries, such as China and Russia. Often laser carved into traditional patterns. These pieces have no real value to collectors. Luckily they can be detected if you know what to look for.
When beginning your collection look for knowledgeable dealers who can teach you how to discern authentic Bakelite pieces from fakes. Those who will share their passion for Bakelite with you.