Becoming a Collector of Vintage Bakelite Jewelry

This Bakelite bangle, circa 1930-42, is in a gorgeous shade of green. This bangle is most unusual in that has along the entire top of the bangle, medium sized faux pearls, 8 of them, set into the bangle in an abstract fashion.

Once you have decided you want to start collecting vintage Bakelite jewelry, you need to get started somewhere. And the best advice is to start off slowly and carefully. It helps, of course to have some basic knowledge of the history of this wonderful era of collecting. There are many exceptional books on vintage Bakelite jewelry readily available, which are a most useful resource. We have been dealing in vintage Bakelite jewelry for well over 25 years and truly believe that it is never too late to start collecting, wearing and enjoying vintage Bakelite jewelry. This form of vintage plastic jewelry is indeed a wonderful tribute to the designs contributed from the Art Deco era.

The Art Deco period began with the end of the Art Nouveau period in approximately 1920 and continued through 1935. During this era, the most accessible and collectible jewelry of the era was plastic. Now, the word “plastic” and the word “jewelry” do not seem to go together for many people, but they do, if you are an avid collector of Deco jewelry—in Bakelite—the colorful fun jewelry that is so fashionable to wear.

We are of the opinion that this is the ultimate in costume jewelry, as it is worn completely for effect; to enhance the “costume.” Rather than being spurned as it was for many years, it is worn today in the spirit of colorful fun for which it was intended. In addition, when searching for Bakelite jewelry, one can find some fabulous examples of great design work in the harder-to-find pieces that have made their happy way to the collectible’s market.

This Bakelite bangle is in the fabulous “saucer” style with very deep Art Deco carvings in a gorgeous and rich butterscotch color.

When beginning to collect Bakelite jewelry, certainly do not believe that you have to start off with highly carved and costly pieces. This is not the case.

So, you say you like Bakelite, but don’t quite know what it is. Well, at its core, Bakelite is a phenolic resin that was cast into tubes or rods and carved sheets by machinists. It was invented by Dr. Leo Bakeland, for which he obtained a patent on July 13, 1907, and there was an almost immediate demand for it. Soon, there was no end of household items, kitchenware, games, toys, electrical insulators and, of course, jewelry, made of this material. It was intended for the masses. Most Bakelite jewelry production ceased in 1942, coinciding with America’s entry into the Second World War.

Bakelite jewelry was sold in the 1930s and early 1940s in such noteworthy United States department stores as Sears, Saks, B. Altman’s and Bonwit Tellers. There were well-known designers—such as Van Cleef and Arpel, Channel and Lalique—who even produced items using this material. Remember, this was in the midst of the Great Depression, and the bright and durable Bakelite items were an instant hit with all, as it was a relatively inexpensive way to add some color into one’s life. The Queen may not have worn Bakelite at the time, but, as we recently learned, the royal yacht Britannia boasted furnishings that had Bakelite trim.

Another vintage Bakelite bangle is carved very deeply in a rich and deep cream corn color.

It can be a truly awesome and confusing experience when beginning one’s search for that first piece of vintage Bakelite jewelry. As with all vintage and collectible jewelry, time creates scarcity. But there is much to choose from. Often, you can find Bakelite in brick-and-mortar shops, at antiques shows and flea markets, and on the Internet.

Beware Fake Bakelite

But one needs to beware, as there are many Bakelite “imposters” being sold, commonly termed “Fakelite.” In the marketplace, Fakelite has come to mean plastic jewelry that is newly manufactured from materials such as phenolic resin and are manufactured and crafted, with carvings and all, to resemble vintage Bakelite. In so many instances, Fakelite is being misrepresented and portrayed as vintage Bakelite, and it is certainly up to the individual buyer to determine if these pieces hold any aesthetic value, so one must be prudent when shopping for vintage Bakelite.

We believe that while “copying” is the best form of flattery, we are dismayed that there is a “cottage industry” that has been created with the production of Fakelite. We recommend that the best item to start collecting vintage Bakelite is with the Bakelite bangle. These run the gamut from highly carved and wide to thinner, non-carved spacer bangles. The highly carved Bakelite bangles tend, of course, to be higher in price. While these carved bangles are truly spectacular and striking, featuring exquisite workmanship, this may not be the place to start if you are working with a “Bakelite budget,” as one can always upgrade.

This vintage Bakelite bangle is deeply carved in a rich and delicious chocolate brown.

Because the colors of vintage Bakelite are like a box of Crayola crayons (most having oxidized over the years to darker tones), wearing several thinner spacer bangles can be just as striking, less costly and just as effective for the beginner collector as wearing a wide, deeply carved and chunky Bakelite bangle. These will cost you less and soon you will still be the proud owner of a collection of vintage Bakelite bangles. As time and budget permits, one can always purchase a wider, carved bangle, wearing the spacer bangles on either side for yet a different vintage fashion look.

Take the Bakelite Test

When you have decided that you want to join the Bakelite jewelry hunt, you must be armed with knowledge and be assertive; and ask questions of the dealer(s) you are considering making a purchase from. Inquire if the item has been positively “tested” for Bakelite and what test had they utilized. Authentic vintage Bakelite, when run under very hot water, will yield a strong smell and most pieces, when rubbed with 409 household cleaner or Simi-chrome polish, will turn a Q-Tip yellowish. Additionally, vintage Bakelite jewelry will have no seams, so check the inside of the bangle carefully.

We always utilize these basic testing methods to ascertain that we are selling an authentic vintage piece of Bakelite jewelry. We are also aware that the fake items being presented in the market have been “treated” in such a way that they may pass the basic Bakelite tests. As one continues to collect the real thing, practice will make perfect. To be certain you are not buying Fakelite, we recommend that you purchase only from reputable, experienced dealers until you believe you are ready to go out on your own and search out Bakelite at flea markets and antique shows. Feel free to ask questions of any vintage Bakelite dealer regarding an item and enjoy the thrill of collecting vintage Bakelite!

An Art Deco sterling and red Bakelite brooch.

While starting with bangles is the safest way to begin you Bakelite collection, you should overlooked Bakelite brooches, bar clips and dress clips, as they are indeed a vintage fashion complement to the bangle and are extremely versatile. Brooches can be heavily carved or simple, and bar pins are equally attractive. Dress clips and brooches can be worn in a variety of ways and in a variety of angles, and the wearing of both items together complete any outfit makes a presentation that cannot be beat: a total Bakelite “look!”

Good luck ting your vintage Bakelite jewelry collection, and happy hunting!

— Linda Grossman and Evelynne Roth

Evelynne Roth and Linda Grossman have been mother-daughter Bakelite jewelry dealers for more than 25 years. Evelyn is an authority on Bakelite, having collected Bakelite for more than 40 years. Together, they operate Evelynne’s Oldies But Goodies.


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