SHARE IT
Pin this on Pinterest

All About Bakelite

A look at the history of this gorgeous vintage jewelry component.
Bakelitehero

I’m not sure when I became obsessed with Bakelite, but I can tell you why. As a collector of the stuff, I must say there is nothing else quite like genuine Bakelite. It has a wonderful feel, a deep, rich sound when you tap two pieces together, and even a smell that has a sort of “zing” to it. 

True Bakelite has no seams, which is not the case with modern plastics. Bakelite comes in a wide variety of colors, including black, and a range of transparencies from opaque to marbled. Original white Bakelite has turned a cream color due to the aging process, and clear transparent Bakelite has turned yellow and is now known as apple juice Bakelite.

All About Bakelite Disc beads
Gorgeous disc beads
All About Bakelite CHerry Red BEads
Cherry red beads
All About Bakelite Yellow rings
Yellow Bakelite rings
All About Bakelite YSL Rings
Components used in vintage Yves Saint Laurent designs
THE MATERIAL OF A THOUSAND USES

Bakelite was the first completely synthetic plastic ever made. It was invented by accident in 1907 by a Belgian chemist named Dr. Leo Baekeland. While trying to develop an alternative for shellac, Dr. Baekeland applied heat and pressure to create a compound of phenol and formaldehyde. When he tried to reheat the solidified compound, he discovered that it would not melt (which is why Bakelite cannot be recycled). Bakelite was found to be fire resistant as well as electrically nonconductive, so it became very useful as an insulator for electronics.

As the first form of plastic, Bakelite changed how people lived, and it soon came to be known as “the material of a thousand uses.” During wartime, Bakelite was often used to replace metals needed for military efforts. Bakelite was used in the wall panels of mobile homes and to make radios, rotary telephones, medicine bottles, clocks, automobile dashboards, comb-and-brush sets, kitchen utensils, game pieces, and children’s toys, too. Oh, and jewelry — it was used in lots of wonderful jewelry!

In 1927, the Bakelite patent expired, and the Catalin Corporation acquired the product. Catalin developed many new and brilliant colors of Bakelite, and Bakelite-Catalin jewelry was sold to companies like Saks Fifth Avenue as well as Woolworth’s Five and Dime stores.

As the Depression brought difficult financial times, Bakelite jewelry became very popular for people of all economic classes. It lent itself easily to carving and molding into beautiful shapes, and it could easily be embellished with rhinestones. It was colorful, versatile, and, best of all, affordable for most everyone. Even famous designers like Coco Chanel and Yves Saint Laurent offered jewelry and accessories made of Bakelite.

By the end of World War II, new products such as Lucite, fiberglass, vinyl, and acrylic came on the market. They were cheaper to produce and easier to mold and cast, thus making Bakelite and Catalin nearly obsolete. However, Bakelite is still used today for electronics and the automotive industry because of its heat resistance, durability, and nonconductive properties.

The good news is that I found mountains of Bakelite — cuff bracelets, beads, rings, and jewelry components in all different shapes, sizes, and colors — within a hoard of vintage beads I acquired several years ago. Many of the Bakelite pieces were used in Yves Saint Laurent’s early 1960s accessory collections. These pieces were thought to be lost forever, but the overstock was put into storage and overlooked for many years. But this Bakelite treasure has been found, and my love of collecting continues! Learn more about this remarkable find in the April 2012 issue of Bead&Button magazine

To learn more about Bakelite, check out these resources:
“A new chemical substance,” The New York Times (February 6, 1909).
Bakelite: An illustrated guide to collectible Bakelite objects, by Patrick Cook and Catherine Slessor (1992).
The Plastics Age: From Bakelite to beanbags and beyond, edited by Penny Sparke (1993).

For information about Bakelite authenticity testing, visit AGOS Bead University at agrainofsand.com.

FIND MORE: found object

Do you beading?

Then you’ll want to subscribe to Bead&Button magazine! You’ll get exclusive projects, gorgeous design inspirations, helpful advice about new products, and much more!

Want to leave a comment?

Only registered members of FacetJewelry.com are allowed to leave comments. Registration is FREE and only takes a couple minutes.

Login or Register now.
PRODUCTS YOU MIGHT LIKE
SIGN UP FOR OUR NEWSLETTER
Get awesome news, tips, & free stuff!