The Intricate Art of Bakelite Jewelry

Philadelphia Bakelite

I’m on a stripe hunt . . . I’ve seen these stripes patterning bracelets and earrings, but only in photos. This deliciously colorful jewelry is called Philadelphia Bakelite. My pull towards collecting and selling Bakelite is increasing as the standards have risen after this discovery. Not only are these beauties a splendid representation of Art Deco style, but Philadelphia Bakelite can run in the hundreds to the thousands of dollars. The huge price tag is due to the craftsmanship, as each colored section had to be carved and then precisely glued together. It is likely that the name came from a Philadelphia auction in 1985 when an amazing example of this sold for $17,000!

Bakelite is a plastic that was patented by Dr. Leo Baekeland in 1907. The chemist accidentally invented the durable plastic when trying to develop a type of varnish. Bakelite was at first used for industrial purposes, such as electrical insulators, due to its fire resistance. It’s called thermoset plastic because it can be melted and formed into shapes. Once the piece has been heated, it doesn’t melt down again. This plastic was used in creating hundreds of other products such as telephones, radios, clock casings, kitchenalia and cameras.

For over a century, jewelry designers have been drawn to using plastics because unlike metal or glass, it can be molded, carved, tinted and laminated. One of the first types of plastic jewelry was Celluloid, popular in the late 1890s, followed by Galalith. Bakelite took over in the 1920s because it is more stable and less inflammable.

Bakelite jewelry
Costume jewelry designers started using Bakelite to intricately carve and cast brightly colorful pieces. Due to the era, a lot of the styles of these pieces are Art Deco. In the 1930s, during the Great Depression, women gravitated towards Bakelite jewelry because it was an inexpensive way to spice up their worn out wardrobes. More expensive designer pieces decorated with metal, wood, rhinestones, or additional plastic ornaments were added in limited numbers to jewelry collections. Bakelite jewelry remained popular until it was eclipsed by Lucite in the 1940s.

Bakelite jewelry in general is highly collectible. Some of the most sought after Bakelite jewelry today are beaded, striped, polka dotted or multi-colored. We have a Marbled Perfume Bottle Brooch (sold), which was created with end-of-day Bakelite. This Bakelite coloring appears in jewelry when the hues that are left at the end of the day are swirled together to create a piece. Our shop also currently carries an adorable Wood and Bakelite Fish Brooch and a beautifully carved Bakelite Flower Brooch (sold). Bakelite patterns and colors were used to imitate tortoiseshell, amber, coral, ivory and even gemstones. This malleable plastic was formed into various shapes such as human figures, animals, fruits, flowers, leaves and boats. There seems to be no end to the character and charm of this jewelry.

Bakelite jewelry
When purchasing Bakelite, I first check the piece to make sure that there are no mold-lines or seams. Next is the sniff test. I rub a small spot with my finger repeatedly until it’s warm from the friction. If it’s Bakelite, it will smell like formaldehyde. Remember the pungent smell from dissecting frogs in biology class? Yep, that’s it. Or I take a Q-tip and rub a tiny spot on a hidden part of the jewelry with Simichrome cleaner. If the Q-tip changes color from pink to amber-yellow, it’s Bakelite. (This doesn’t always work with black Bakelite.) Check out this website for other ways to test Bakelite.

Most of the photos used in this blog are from two inpsiring costume jewelry books Costume Jewelry (DK Collector’s Guides) and Costume Jewelry (POCKET COLLECTIBLES).

Now I’m off . . . to hunt for stripes!

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