Costume jewelry is sometimes disregarded by jewelry lovers as lacking in quality, but even aficionados can appreciate the colorful forms of Bakelite jewelry. In fact, most vintage plastic jewelry is desirable because it reminds us of a time when jewelry designers really had fun – with motifs, colors, and bold styles. There's a whole world of vintage plastic beyond Bakelite, so get exploring!
All plastics can be differentiated by how they respond to heat. Celluloid and other natural plastics can be heated and softened over and over again to return them to a moldable state. This category is called thermoplastic. Bakelite, once hardened, can never return to a moldable state. This type of plastic is classified as thermoset. What does this mean for the jewelry collector? Simply, you do not have to worry about Bakelite melting if exposed to high heat!
Though the earliest forms of celluloid were developed in the 1840’s, its application in jewelry manufacturing didn’t take off until the later half of the century, when John Wesley Hyatt patented his cellulose nitrate and camphor concoction under the name Celluloid. Originally intended as a replacement for ivory in billiard balls, it quickly found many uses thanks to its ability to be colored, etched, and made opaque. This form of celluloid was highly flammable, and in 1920, cellulose acetate was discovered as a less dangerous alternative. Celluloid and other cellulose plastics were favored for their ability to mimic natural materials, such as amber, tortoiseshell, and bone.
Casein plastic was first patented in 1897 in Germany, and later introduced to the United States in 1919. This form of plastic is made by extracting natural casein proteins from milk, mixing them with plasticizers and dyes, and hardened in a formaldehyde solution. Casein plastic is similar to celluloid in that it was often used to mimic natural materials. Today, casein is mostly used in paints and glues. When heated, casein smells like burned milk or cheese.
Bakelite was patented by Leo Hendrick Baekeland in 1907 as a mixture of phenol and formaldehyde heated under high pressure. This form of thermoset plastic took off right away for its superior durability and many applications. Early forms of Bakelite were limited to dark shades of brown, red, blue, green, and black, however by the end of the 1920’s, Bakelite could be found in a wide range of colors with hardness and luster that could rival semi-precious jewels. In fact, Bakelite “pearls” became favored over the real thing for their durability and lightweight qualities. Bakelite became the preferred plastic for jewelry makers and artists, and undoubtedly is the most coveted form by collectors.
First developed in 1901, acrylic plastic wasn’t used in jewelry until the 1930’s in Germany. Acrylic was favored for its crystal clear translucency and ability to be easily colored and molded. In 1941, the American costume jeweler Joseph H. Meyer Bros. patented a form of acrylic plastic called Lucite. Acrylic resin jewelry has recently surged in popularity again thanks to its accessibility for amateur jewelry makers.
Oil paint is no more remarkable than other paints, but the fact that it inspired the world’s greatest artists to create masterpieces with it is what makes it special. Similarly, Bakelite proved a much more appealing medium to jewelry designers than other plastics, and inspired unique and innovative designs. In addition, there is a finite amount of Bakelite in the world, as it is no longer being manufactured, and scarcity always leads to collectability.
As with all jewelry, we recommend collecting what you like first and foremost. There are certain aspects you can look for in Bakelite jewelry that increase its value, such as rare colors, quality of carvings, and simply the artistic value of the design itself. These quality factors can apply to all types of vintage plastic jewelry.
Though it is possible to test Bakelite jewelry with the application of a hot needle (Bakelite will not melt), we strongly discourage this as you will damage any other plastics, and some plastics may be flammable. Other ways to identify Bakelite include looking for a seam (Bakelite jewelry will not have this mold mark), feeling the weight (Bakelite is relatively heavy for a plastic), and rubbing the jewelry briskly in your palm to heat it up with friction (Bakelite will give off a formaldehyde smell). In addition, Bakelite could not be wrought the way celluloid could, so jewelry that has curving or twisted designs is more likely celluloid. Unfortunately, none of these methods is foolproof, so if you want to become a serious collector, we recommend immersing yourself in the many books on Bakelite jewelry to familiarize yourself with the different jewelry makers and their styles.
Bakelite jewelry is stable and considered as safe to wear as any other plastic jewelry; the danger in terms of chemical exposure was in the manufacturing process. If your bakelite jewelry breaks however, it is recommended that you no longer handle it to avoid breathing in dust particles. If you are concerned about wearing plastic against your skin, you can still enjoy collecting this colorful jewelry as an investment.