Bakelite Jewelry

In its hay day, Bakelite jewelry wasn’t exactly what you would call designer jewelry, but it has its place in history, and a very important place at that! Today it is considered to be a highly prized collectable item because it is prominent historically for two very different reasons. Although it was only fashioned during the 1920’s and 1930’s, it is important to understand what was going on in the world at the time and how Bakelite jewelry played a role in helping to provide some amount of normalcy to world events.

Bakelite during the Great Depression

This was a time in history like no other. Not only was there a collapse of the financial system in the United States, but around the world as well. It was difficult enough trying to put food on the table let alone having any money left over for jewelry. As a result, women sought cheaper ways to add a little normalcy and beauty to their lives, even in the absence of buying new jewelry. Bakelite was an affordable costume jewelry fashioned from one of the first synthetic plastics, it was lightweight, could be adorned with rhinestones, metals and could even be carved in intricate designs. Many of these hand-carved pieces fetched a considerable amount of money for the time and are extremely rare (and expensive) now as they are among some of the most sought after period pieces of the time.

The History of Bakelite
As one of the first synthetic plastics, Bakelite was developed by a Belgian chemist, Dr. Leo Baekeland between the years of 1907 and 1909. At first it was used in such things as radios and telephones as well as in electrical insulators because it is nonconductive and an resistant to heat. Bakelite is extremely lightweight and became popular in manufacturing children’s toys, kitchenware, and then jewelry. In 1992 the American Chemical Society launched the National Historical Chemical Landmarks Program that is quite like a “hall of fame” for chemicals. The following year, in 1993, Bakelite was inducted as the ‘first synthetic plastic.’ Because of this, and the scarcity of authentic Bakelite jewelry, these period pieces can be worth quite a bit of money.

What to Look for in Bakelite Jewelry
The first thing to look for when you come across a piece of jewelry that is being promoted as authentic Bakelite is to see if it s the ‘real deal.’ Because of chemical properties of Bakelite, it will have a reaction with ammonia. The easiest test is to take a bit of ammonia on a Q-tip, swab it on a little area of the piece and then look at the Q-tip. If it has turned yellow, chances are it is authentic. The second thing to look for is color and whether or not it is hand carved. Common colors such as yellow and brown are not as expensive as ‘end of the day’ (which is a fashion that has swirls of color) and plain pieces without any ornate carvings also go for less money. Remember, authentic Bakelite jewelry was hand carved by jewelry artisans and there are few pieces left. Should you find an authentic piece of hand carved Bakelite jewelry, you have made quite a find!

As the Great Depression came to an end ladies began discarding their plastic jewelry because they saw it as useless. They began buying real silver and gold with authentic gemstones and only viewed their Bakelite jewelry as cheap costume pieces and probably more importantly as reminders of an unhappy time in their lives. This alone accounts for the scarcity of authentic pieces. If you find certified authentic Bakelite jewelry, you will not only have a collectible that is of great worth from a collectors standpoint, but you will also have captured a piece of ‘social’ history.

Post a Response