Finding that special Bakelite bracelet has become the passion of a number of collectors. Collecting Bakelite jewelry is a popular and fun hobby, and can also make you money if you know the type of pieces in which to invest. Many people love collecting Bakelite art because it is so ubiquitous, and can be found in thrift shops, flea markets, yard sales and in antique stores, and you will always find some lovely carved Bakelite pieces on eBay.
What is Bakelite, you might ask? In fact it is a synthetic material: one of the first plastics invented and patented by a Belgian, Leo Baekeland, in 1907. It is a form of thermosetting plastic, which means it is cured by heat and does not melt in the same way as a normal thermoplastic such as nylon or polyester.
As a result, it is very hard and durable, and was used for a large variety of items from buttons to door knobs, and radios to telephones. It can be colored in a variety of patterns and shapes and could also be used for jewelry.
Once the patent expired in 1927, the price of Bakelite dropped dramatically opening it up to everybody that wanted to use it. Its versatility, durability and toughness led to it being used for a wide variety of plastic items, and for a while it was the plastic to use for everything from graceful bracelets, carved brooches and large colorful bangles.
Its use as costume jewelry rocketed with the increasing popularity of the movies, and thousands of fabulous brooches, pins, beads, earrings, finger rings and bracelets of every description were produced before the end of the 1920s. The predominant colors were butterscotch, green, red yellow and brown, and it was sold predominantly in stores such as B. Altwin and Saks Fifth Avenue, but also by Sears and Woolworth.
Its popularity soared during the Great Depression when the wealthy were wealthy no more. Cartier and Tiffany were replaced with cast Bakelite, carved into intricate shapes and adorned with rhinestones and costing anything from a few dollars to a few hundred. Had it not been for the Second World War, Bakelite might still be a popular base material for jewelry, but sales were suspended in 1942 as the plastic was focused on the war effort.
After the war, other plastics, more malleable and easier to produce, came onto the market, such as acrylics and vinyl that could be injection molded rather than cast and carved. However, collecting Bakelite jewelry has now become very popular, some people collecting specific types of articles such as bangles or rings, while others collect Bakelite jewelry in specific colors. Others just collect!
What should you be looking for when building your Bakelite jewelry collection? Finding a piece that has retained its original color is rare, and such items are valuable. That is because the plastic changes over time and the colors change, Blues change to green or black, pink turns into orange and so a beautiful old blue piece of Bakelite will be worth a lot more than a black piece of the same vintage. Red Bakelite and green Bakelite are very popular colors among collectors.
Look for seam marks: a real Bakelite bangle is cast and not molded, so there will be no seams. The genuine material was cast into solid rods or hollow tubes, and then cut and carved just like metal is cut and engraved. Nor will you ever see glue used with Bakelite: screws and rivets were used to affix clasps and pins and other fixtures to the pieces. When you hit two genuine bangles together they will give a lovely resonant sound, not the dull clunk of today’s plastics.
Real Bakelite also has a rich patina caused by age and oxidation of the phenolic resin used to manufacture it. If you come across the trade names Marblette, Catalin and Prystal, don’t get upset – these are all forms of phenolic resin, and sometimes used synonymously although they were at one time competitors producing the same items. Prystal is an Italian translucent form of phenolic resin, or Bakelite in its general sense.
There is a lot of fake Bakelite around (Fakelite), and apart from the above visual and audible differences you can tell genuine Bakelite from the odor it emits when heated. If you run some hot water over a piece then rapidly smell it, real Bakelite should give off a formaldehyde or phenolic smell. Alternatively rub the piece hard with a finger and then smell. Some people can detect a formaldehyde, phenolic or carbolic odor, but others can’t. The resin is made from phenol and formaldehyde, and heat or friction can cause a slight disassociation or the release of the two monomers. However, never use a hot pin on Bakelite – all you will do is leave a hole or a burn mark.
When collecting Bakelite jewelry you have to be very careful about fakes, because you can pay a lot of money if you are a serious collector. One recent sale featured a honey-colored bangle at $86 and a rare Bakelite pumpkin pin at $6,325. However, the beauty of collecting Bakelite is that you can also find pieces at just a few dollars.
Collecting Bakelite is popular and can be very addictive, and one of its attractions is that although production started in the early part of the 20th century, it is still being produced today. Your collection can be general or specific and your pieces can appreciate in value. However, if you were to take only one tip it would be how to spot the fakes. The more you collect the easier it will become to do so.
We invite you to search for Bakelite jewelry in central Kentucky’s antiques shops!