|By Patricia Faulhaber
Bakelite jewelry and other items remain a favorite with collectors. Bakelite itself was a favorite material for artists and jewelry designers to use when making their wares.
Collectors will find Bakelite products in all sorts of bright and fun colors and fun and whimsical designs. Jewelry designs can range from a green pepper pin or a cat holding a bowl of goldfish pin, to thick or thin bangle bracelets.
Colors range from bright reds, to dark greens, rare purples, butterscotch or pomegranate. Plus, there are solid, marbled, transparent, laminated, reverse carved, resin washed, clad with metal and crystal versions of the jewelry.
There are also household items and personal items made of Bakelite such as compacts and other vanity accessories, pencil sharpeners, radios, letter openers among other items. The list of items made of Bakelite is long and varied which is another reason collectors fall in love fast and furious.
Just what is Bakelite? According to www.realorrepo.com it was named after inventor Leo Baekeland who came up with it in 1907. It is made from carbolic acid (phenol) and formaldehyde and is called a phenolic resin. It was the first thermosetting plastic which means once formed, the shape can’t be changed or melted under heat.
Jason M Adams from northeast Ohio is one of those collectors attracted to Bakelite because of its vibrant colors and finishes. He has one entire room in his 1905 house dedicated to his Bakelite collection.
“Baekeland made Bakelite by accident while he was trying to find a way to make shellac,” Adams said. “I’ve always been drawn to color and the Bakelite colors are radiant and to me they just glow. I bought my first piece at an antique show in Burton, Ohio, 1998 or 1999 and now I have in excess of 900 pieces.”
Bakelite was originally used in insulators against heat and electricity. It quickly became a favorite plastic to use for decorative items once it was produced in different colors. Bakelite was not the only trade name for the plastic material. Other brands started popping up such as Catalin, Marblette, Prystal Phenolia and others.
Brand names rarely appear anywhere on the items and as such, collectors generally refer to all of the items made from the plastic as Bakelite.
“When Baekeland developed the plastic, he threw it in the trash because he thought it was a mistake. A few days later he noticed it was glowing. He later found it could be used for utilitarian purposes. Baekeland started producing it in different colors which then attracted artists who began making jewelry and other items from it,” Adams said.
“The crossover to jewelry and other items started in the 1920s and 30s. By the 1940s, its use was widespread. The items were expensive and sold in stores like Woolworths, O’Neil’s and other top retailers of the times,” Adams said.
Determining if an item is really Bakelite or some other type of plastic can be difficult. Collectors suggest several tests to determine what the item is made from.
“You can use Simichrome metal polish and put a tiny, tiny touch of it inside a bracelet or on back of one of the pins. The spot will turn a mustard yellow. Another way is to look for a seam in the plastic which would indicate the item has been molded and isn’t from Bakelite,” Adams offered.
Bakelite is also very thick and dense and is heavy. Adams suggested the item should make a “clunking or thud type sound when put together with other Bakelite items such as putting two bracelets together.”
Adams has a rare purple bracelet. Purple was a rare color and Adams said many of the purple items have turned brown over the years.
“Plastic does age over time with the air and the sun hitting it. Some of the vibrant colors such as the reds, pinks and blue moon colors have turned orange or black with age,” Adams said.
Adams said he actually found a sheet of Bakelite at a flea market and purchased it for his collection. He said many manufacturers of the Bakelite products would do specific lines or themes.
Value of Bakelite products have had swings like most collectibles over the years. Adams said there was “a massive surge in prices during the 1980s and 90s.” Prices have gone down drastically in recent years.
“Some of the rare pins are holding their value and bringing a good price. A three-bangle bracelet that sold in the 1980s for $14,000 is now selling for around $4,000 today,” Adams said.
Adams is open for questions about his collection. Find him on www.rubylane.com or he sells his collection at the Medina Antique Mall in Medina, Ohio.