| By Larry LeMasters
Novice collectors would do well to read “Gale’s Bakelite Guide” on Angelfire.com. On this site, Gale gives a good introduction to collecting Bakelite along with some useful information on Asian Fakelite, which she says rips consumers off “by the bucket load!”
Gale offers this fun field test for Bakelite bangle bracelets: wear your bangle while relaxing in your hot tub. “If the bangle smells like formaldehyde, it’s Bakelite. If it smells like Vicks VapoRub (camphor), it is Celluloid. If it smells like burnt milk, it’s Galalith (from 1920s), and if it has no smell, it is Lucite or acrylic.”
Leo Baekeland invented Bakelite (also known as Baekelite) in 1907. Baekeland was experimenting with controlling the temperature and pressure applied to phenol and formaldehyde, trying to find a replacement for shellac. Mixing the two chemicals, Baekeland produced the first synthetic thermosetting plastic ever made, which he named “Bakelite” after himself. Bakelite was a hard, moldable material that could be used, according to Baekeland, to mold 1,001 things.
Bakelite was first used to produce electrical insulators and radio and telephone casings due to its heat-resistant and non-conductivity properties, and Bakelite’s lower production costs made telephones and radios common household items. Soon Bakelite was being used for kitchenware, pipe stems, firearms, games, and toys. But it was most visibly used to make inexpensive, yet colorful jewelry.
In 1910, Baekeland formed the General Bakelite Company, which concentrated its business on the more lucrative molded plastics than the cast solid resins necessary for jewelry making.
The premier issue of Plastics magazine featured Bakelite on its October 1925 cover, asking the question, “Bakelite — What Is It?” The article put Bakelite on a collision path with jewelers across America since, for the first time, jewelers became aware of Bakelite’s extensive color range, including “black, brown, red, yellow, green, gray, blue, orange, cream, maroon, and blends of two or more of these” colors.
By the late 1920s, jewelry designers and manufacturers, such as Coco Chanel, Elsa Schiaparelli, and Diana Vreeland, used Bakelite for dress buttons and costume jewelry. Designer Paul T. Frankl, in 1930, considered Bakelite a “Materia Nova” or new material that was an expression of its time.
Bakelite quickly became the “darling” material for costume jewelry making. Jewelry designers were attracted to Bakelite because it was hard enough to cut and polish, also saw, thread, drill, slice, and sand, and it quickly became the “go to” material for bracelets and bangles.
Today, collectors seek Bakelite bangle bracelets, which make up 60 percent of all Bakelite jewelry, for their nostalgic appeal, colorful colors, and interesting designs.
Whimsical color names such as Butterscotch, Salmon, Chocolate Sundae, and Egg Yolk enchant today’s collectors while capturing the colors and mixed hues of Bakelite perfectly.
Bakelite’s heyday for costume jewelry came in the 1930s and early 1940s (prior to World War II).
Carved Bakelite bracelets, such as pineapples, attract today’s collectors too. One designing technique that has kept Bakelite popular is its ability to be faceted like jewels of many colors.
Translucent Bakelite bangle bracelets, with colors named Lime Jell-O and Root Beer, are also quite popular today.
Genuine Bakelite bangle bracelets are expensive today, especially ones created with laminated material. Laminate Bakelite, with names like “polka dots” and “gum drops” became popular in the 1950s when injection molding allowed the different colors of Bakelite to be directly injected during the manufacturing process. Laminate designs on Bakelite bracelets are both sought after and expensive on today’s secondary markets.
Bakelite bracelets or bangles were made in many forms. Large, block shaped Bakelite beads were strung together on strips of elastic to form bracelets, some bracelets were hinged, and other solid piece Bakelite bangles were carved into the shapes of serpents or celebrities, such as Josephine Baker. In May 2011, a green “Josephine Baker” Bakelite bracelet sold at auction for $600.
In 1985, at a Bakelite jewelry auction in Philadelphia, a type of Bakelite bangles was given the name Philadelphia Bracelets. These bracelets feature laminated colors of green, red, and yellow. Philadelphia Bracelets are often hinged and are often multicolored Bakelite slices glued onto a Butterscotch bracelet body. Today, Philadelphia Bracelets are the most sought after style of Bakelite Bangles.
Although Bakelite bracelets are made of plastic, it takes a whole lot of silver and gold to purchase one on today’s secondary markets. How expensive is Bakelite jewelry? In the 1990s, the price of Bakelite jewelry led Dennis Masellis, an avid collector, to embezzle $7 million from his employer to buy Bakelite jewelry, including the infamous “Pumpkin Man” pin that Masellis paid $21,000 for at auction (a Bakelite record that still stands). After Masellis was arrested and imprisoned, the same pin sold at auction for a mere $8,600.
One excellent reference book, considered the Bakelite Bible by some dealers, is The Bakelite Jewelry Book by Corinne Davidov and Ginny Dawes. Originally published in 1988, this vintage book is still available on Amazon for $25.