If you love vintage jewelry, especially items from the Art Deco period, then Bakelite jewelry will be right up your alley. Manufacturers of the era created some incredible designs with this early plastic, and there are lots of Bakelite pieces that are just as wearable today as they were in the early 20th century.
Bakelite as a Jewelry Material
Invented in 1909 by a chemist named Leo Baekeland, Bakelite quickly took off as a material for novelty jewelry. The industrial era was in full swing, and manufacturers could quickly and easily formed this early plastic into almost any shape imaginable. This made the jewelry available to the masses, who may not have been able to afford many special items prior to its invention.
The use of Bakelite really took off in the Art Deco period, and its opaque, matte appearance went well with the clean lines and geometric styles of the era. This also encompassed the time of the Great Depression, when most people didn't have much disposable income to spend on fine jewelry. Bakelite was affordable and gave women of the period a chance to show off their personal style. Most production stopped in the early 1940s around the time World War II started.
The Jewelry Today
Jewelry enthusiasts of today love Bakelite just as much as their great, great grandmothers did almost a hundred years ago. Bracelets, pendants, brooches, and many other items are highly collectible and prized for their vintage charm.
Colors of Bakelite Pieces
Bakelite came in several colors, including red, green, brown, blue, black, and white. Some of these colors have changed over time as the chemicals in the Bakelite react with the air. For example, items that were once white sometimes appear a yellowish brown, and blue-toned pieces are now green.
You'll find just about every type of jewelry made out of Bakelite, including the following:
- Bracelets - These came in solid bangle styles, as well as linked designs. They are sturdy and wearable today.
- Necklaces - You'll see all kinds of styles on the secondary market, including strings of chunky beads, thick chokers, and molded or carved pendants.
- Pins and brooches - From adorable and funky animal shapes to flowers, there are tons of designs. Some even feature rhinestones set in the Bakelite.
- Earrings - Often featuring a clip back, Bakelite earrings were heavy and substantial. Look for hoops and geometric shapes.
- Lockets - A bit harder to find than some other items, Bakelite lockets often featured a cameo design.
- Rings - Usually formed out of a single piece of Bakelite, these rings are chunky and may not be especially comfortable. They can't be resized, so it's important to get the correct size when shopping.
Value of Bakelite Items
There's a great deal of variation in the value of Bakelite pieces. Items like large strands of red Bakelite beads can fetch $1,000 or more and are among the most valuable items to collectors, likely because the cherry amber color is fairly rare and the simple design is very wearable. Not all Bakelite is this valuable, however. A simple bangle bracelet without a lot of carving or embellishment can be had for only about $30, and it's also easy to find basic earrings or pins in the range.
Several factors can affect the value of a piece:
- Design - Some of the most valuable pieces include those that are carved, painted, or laminated. Multi-colored items featuring more than one shade of Bakelite are also valuable.
- Vintage charm - Certain motifs, such as bird-shaped pins or beautiful florals, make such a lovely, unique style statement that they are in high demand. Polka dot patterns are also a hit with collectors.
- Condition - Bakelite is sturdy and generally holds up well to time. However, scratches, cracks, chips, and scuffs will negatively affect value. Missing hardware is also a problem, so check for original pin and earring backs and necklace clasps.
- Wearability - Certain items are easier to wear today than others. For instance, Bakelite shoe clips, which went on the front of pumps to dress them up, are not as easy for today's collector to wear. However, a strand of beads or a lovely bracelet works just as well today as it did 80 years ago.
- Color - Some colors are quite rare, so they may be worth more. For example, turquoise Bakelite often takes on a greenish hue over time, so actual turquoise colored pieces fetch top dollar.
Shopping for Bakelite
You can find the jewelry at estate sales and antique shops, as well as vintage jewelry stores and even flea markets. Online auction sites like eBay are another good option, as are web-based antique stores like RubyLane.
A Piece of History
No matter what style or color of Bakelite you choose to collect, it's fun to know you're wearing a piece of history. Each item has a story and has been loved by generations before you. This vintage appeal is part of what makes Bakelite jewelry turn heads.