Bakelite jewellery changed the fashion world when it landed in the early to mid-20th century. The plastic provided a way of creating bright and bold designs in an inexpensive way. Not that everyone who produced Bakelite jewellery passed these low material costs onto their customers. Coco Chanel was a huge fan of Bakelite jewellery, often being photographed wearing pieces. Her 1927 line of Bakelite accessories was an introduction into haute couture for the material, with a price tag to match.
However, artisans and designers began creating jewellery from this new plastic aimed at a range of customers from across society, and Bakelite brought some joy during the Great Depression. Even in those austere times, many women could still afford pieces produced from Bakelite and the vibrant colours were a beacon of light amongst the gloom.
Although we have moved on from manufacturing Bakelite, the jewellery is still hugely popular in vintage circles, and you can often find some great examples of this 20th century phenomenon at fairs, in shops and here on the Discover Vintage Marketplace.
What is Bakelite?
Bakelite’s real name is polyoxybenzylmethylenglycolanhydride. Thankfully, we tend to use the easier term, named after its inventor Leo Baekeland. The Belgian, who had crossed the Atlantic to live in the US, created the first ever plastic consisting solely of synthetic components in 1907. He patented it in 1909 and it was initially intended for use in the electrical and automotive industries.
One of the main selling points of this new plastic was the fact that it didn’t conduct electricity, which proved extremely popular. Manufacturers began creating all manner of products from the material, including children’s toys, kitchenware and the still sought-after Bakelite telephones.
From the 1920s onwards, Bakelite jewellery really came into its own. With a plentiful supply at keen prices, jewellery makers could experiment with different designs and styles without having to worry about costs. They could play about with painting and treating it in new and imaginative ways. It was also easily malleable and, of course, available in a range of exciting colours.
Types of Bakelite Plastic Jewellery
You will find many types of Bakelite plastic jewellery around today, from Bakelite necklaces to bangles. You can also track down rings, buckles and earrings from the mid 20th century.
There are variations in the finish of the colouring available too. From jewellery in solid colours, the most common of which around today are the yellows and greens, to marbled Bakelite jewellery items. In addition there is transparent Bakelite, laminated pieces that feature multiple colours next to each other, carved designs, resin-washed jewellery and items where a Bakelite base is clad with metal or another substance.
How to Check Whether it’s Real Bakelite?
Because Bakelite is a plastic, you might sometimes find jewellery masquerading as Bakelite, but which is actually manufactured from a different material, such as lucite. Thankfully, there are a few tests you can carry out to check whether an item is Bakelite. The only downside is that some of them might cause a few raised eyebrows in a shop or at a fair. Still, these work well for making sure the items you already own are definitely Bakelite too.
- Check for seams. The manufacturing process for Bakelite – cutting, shaping and polishing from the raw material – means Bakelite items don’t feature seams like those that are created using moulded plastic.
- Does it smell? Bakelite doesn’t smell at room temperature, but produces an odour when you heat it up. You could achieve this through rubbing the item if you are in a shop. If you are at home you could run it under hot water or use a hair dryer to produce the acrid smell.
- You can dab a little semichrome metal polish on a part of the jewellery that no one will see with a clean cloth. Now look at the cloth. Did the part that touched the jewellery turn yellow? If so, it’s most likely to be Bakelite. Be sure to clean the polish off with another clean cloth though, as it can discolour the jewellery if you don’t.
- Weigh it against a piece of similar size that you know is Bakelite. As Bakelite is heavier than most imitations, you will notice a real difference if it is not genuine.
How to Maintain Bakelite Jewellery
Bakelite plastic jewellery is, unfortunately, very easy to harm. Hence having to clean the metal polish as soon as possible! This means that you need to be careful in how you maintain Bakelite Jewellery.
Warm water and a soft soap is your friend here. Anything stronger could risk discolouring the item. Some people apply products like Brasso to help remove the patina that builds up over time and to restore the piece to its original glory, but that is a task you should only undertake if you are absolutely sure you know what you are doing! For regular maintenance, soap and water will suffice.
Bakelite Jewellery Prices and What to Look For
There is a lot of very valuable Bakelite jewellery available to buy on the market today. The items created by fashion powerhouses like Coco Chanel and Elsa Schiaparelli are still very much in demand and can set you back a decent amount. However, there are also bargains to be had, thanks to the popularity of Bakelite items in the 20th century. In addition, many crafters are creating new Bakelite jewellery from old items such as radios and telephones. Keep an eye on the Discover Vintage Marketplace and use the search box to find Bakelite items as they appear.
It is worth checking with sellers as to whether a piece you are considering buying is genuine Bakelite. They will be happy to reassure you and can tell you more about the item.
One of the joys of Bakelite is that there is so much variety, so everyone can find the perfect piece for their look, style and bank balance!