Bakelite jewelry was most popular during the Art Deco period, which began in 1909 and lasted until the 1940s. These pieces were created as costume jewelry, as a way to dress up clothing or an outfit without spending a lot of money. The pieces were popular during the heyday of the Art Deco period and many of the pieces remain popular today.
Dr. Leo Bakeland invented Bakelite in the early 1900s. Bakeland discovered that the material would cool quickly and wouldn’t melt, regardless of the temperatures. He took out a patent on the idea in 1907. The material was heated to a melting point and then poured into molds and sheets to create the different pieces. It was used for a number of things including toys and for electronics parts. The material was never meant to be expensive, but to give those without a lot of money access to quality pieces. Many companies stopped using Bakelite in the early 1940s as the need for World War II related products took hold. By the end of the War, new technologies in the world of plastics had made Bakelite obsolete.
The height of Bakelite jewelry was the late 1930s, up until the end of the Art Deco period. The designs were quite popular in mass merchandise stores such as Sears and Roebuck. However there were also some famous names working with the material and creating Bakelite jewelry including Chanel and Van Cleef and Arpel. Oddly enough Bakeland allowed the patent to expire and the Catalin Corporation bought it. They began creating their own Bakelite jewelry marketed as Bakelite-Catalin. The pieces were sold in both expensive stores like Saks Fifth Avenue and smaller stores such as Woolworth’s.
Bakelite jewelry was available in a variety of colors, but brown, green, red, and white were the most popular color choices. Over time though, exposure to the light and particles in the air have caused many of these colors to change. A good example is a bracelet that was once white, but now looks pale brown in color.
There are also different ways in which individuals can check Bakelite jewelry to ensure it’s authentic. One of the best ways is to touch a red hot pin against the back of the piece. Real Bakelite can’t melt or be burned so the match shouldn’t harm the piece. If it burns or melts, that’s a sign that the piece is actually plastic or another type of fake Bakelite.
The History of Bakelite is a good starting point because it contains a short history of the material, but it also lists ways to test and differentiate Bakelite from plastic jewelry.
For pictures of Bakelite jewelry, check out Bakelite Jewelry and Vintage Plastic. It lists dozens of different vintage products and includes pictures and information about the product and designer or manufacturer. More pictures can be found at Bakelite Jewelry Brightens Your Wardrobe.
Those interested should also check out Vintage Bakelite Jewelry, which discusses the material and how it was used throughout history.
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