Tuesday, 7 May 2013

Bakelite Jewellery

The term "Bakelite" is often incorrectly applied to many different plastics. There are three basic forms of plastic used in jewelry: cast phenolic (including Bakelite), pyroxylin (celluloid), and casein (Galalith). Celluloid, invented by Alexander Parkes in 1868, has its base in plant celluloid, and its early uses included billiard balls and movie film. Galalith, invented by Adolph Spittler in 1897, was made from milk protein and could be polished to a high gloss. It could be moulded by heat but was not water-resistant and tended to warp. These two major plastics were semi-synthetic, that is they were made from naturally found proteins, but oxybenzylmethylene-glycolanhydride (otherwise known as Bakelite) was the first fully synthetic plastic. Patented by Leo Baekeland in 1907, it was also the first thermosetting plastic (it set permanently on cooling) and was non-flammable. It is tasteless, odourless, water-resistant, can be polished to a high sheen, and, importantly, can be coloured. Although the initial range of colours was rather limited, it expanded to over 200 with research by the Catalin Corporation, its major producers. In 1935 Catalin introduced a clear version of Bakelite. Although the early versions were prone to crazing and warping, the problems were resolved in the later range of cast phenolics, Lucite and Plexiglas. Bakelite was produced in a wonderful range of colours, and affectionately given names such as "Butterscotch" and "Apple Juice". However, the real value of Bakelite was that it was very easy to work and could be intricately carved. Delivered to the factory in standard rods, tubes, blocks, and sheets, it was used in a multitude of products.

Carved Bakelite Hinged Bracelet, late 1930s  This is typical of the type of bracelet made in Bakelite. It was exquisitely hand-carved by a skilled artisan from one oval extruded pipe of plastic, then cut, and a sprung hinge bolted to one side. This piece demonstrates the impressive depth of colour and sheen that Bakelite pieces can attain. The differing thicknesses of the carving allow light to penetrate the material to varying degrees, giving it extra three-dimensionality. Since they were handmade, no two such bracelets are ever exactly alike.

After the Great Depression in the United States, the new fun Bakelite jewels became extremely popular, thanks to their very modest pricing as well as their novelty even Chanel produced Bakelite bracelets set with large stones. However, the plastic's demise coincided with the United States entering the Second World War, as production moved from luxury goods to necessities. It never recovered.

Bakelite jewelry can fetch very large amounts of money. Although originally sold as "penny jewelry", this very cheapness also made them disposable and most were thrown away. This means that little Bakelite jewelry survives today, and that which does is highly sought after. 

Bakelite Cherries, mid-1930s  This bar pin with dangling cherry fruits and leaves is a classic piece of Bakelite. It also exists in an enormous number of variations involving almost every fruit or vegetable imaginable, as well as sporting equipment, school-related symbols, tropical motifs, and smoking paraphernalia you name it, they made it.

• There are costume jewelry collectors and there are Bakelite collectors. Bakelite jewelly is a complex sub-category of costume jewel my and is an intricate subject in itself

• Buttons were a favourite fashion accessory in the '30s and every clothing designer put a lot of effort into the incorporation of bright, whimsical, or novel Bakelite button designs in their lines.

• Far from being a poor relation in the jewelry family, top-end Bakelite jewelry was sold in some of the most prestigious shops, including Saks in New York, Harrods and As prey's in London, and Bon Marche in Paris.

Fakes & Damage

Copies and forgeries abound, made from modern plastics that closely resemble Bakelite. Testing for Bakelite is very difficult (one "test", using a red-hot pin, is not recommended!), so the best method is simply experience you will learn to recognize pieces through knowledge of design and materials. You will become familiar with the colours used at different times, the quality of light transference through the material, the depth of colour, the internal texture, and even the sound as you gently tap the piece with a fingernail (after asking the vendor's permission first, of course). More quickly, you will recognize the designs of the fakes on the market: there is not much variety in the designs used so you will learn to tell at a glance which ones to avoid.

Bakelite has one other important disadvantage, and that is cracking and chipping. For all its virtues, it is a brittle plastic. If you drop a Bakelite bangle, it is unlikely to survive. Cracks appear most commonly around stress points, such as where metal hinges or pins have been inserted. Double-and triple check these areas. Typically you could not sell a cracked piece to a collector or dealer for more than 10 per cent of the price of a piece in good condition.

Writer – Steven Mainers

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