Sunday, April 30, 2006

Bakelite - The Early Plastic

laundry sprinkler - red Bakelite with black spots

There were so many different kinds of early plastics made during the mid-20th century, but of all of them, Bakelite is certainly the most popular amongst today’s collectors.

Bakelite was used during the 1930s and 1940s to make many different products - jewelry, small appliances (irons, toasters, and the like), radios, etc. Of all these categories, Bakelite jewelry is probably one of the hottest collecting trends on today's antiques market.

One little-known fact is that Bakelite was actually considered as a material for making pennies during World War II, as copper was needed for shell casings. Eventually, the idea was discarded and steel was used to make war-time pennies.

One of the very first plastics ever made, Bakelite was originally made around 1907 by scientist Leo H. Baekeland, who partially named this material after himself. It was inexpensive to make, and turned out to be fire-resistant - hence, the use of Bakelite in small kitchen appliances and table flatwares. It was also a good insulator against electricity and heat, making it a useful product in making radios, and eventually, was used for all sorts of everyday items - billiard balls, napkin rings, poker chips, telephones, serving trays, cameras, drawer knobs, even records!

In it's earliest years, Bakelite was often seen in drab colors such as brown. Eventually, Bakelite doesn't easily fade and it was discovered that it took to bright colors so vividly, jewelry was the natural choice. It carves well, is very durable and therefore usually doesn’t usually show much wear. Because it didn’t cost much to make, it’s intense use during the Depression era allowed Bakelite jewelry to be the "new" jewelry of the masses.

Jewelers became enamored of this new-found material, and incorporated Bakelite jewelry into their inventories as an inexpensive and attractive jewelry for middle-class customers. They often carved floral designs, so popular at that time, but also included animals and sometimes even people.

One simple way to test a piece of Bakelite jewelry is to dip it in steaming-hot water and then sniff - Bakelite has a strong acrid smell, noticeable immediately. If it smells terrible, it’s probably Bakelite!

Bakelite is no longer made as jewelry, but is still in production for small components such as saucepan handles, electrical plugs and switches, and electric iron parts, as well as for industrial applications in the electronic, power generation and aerospacee industries.

Over the past decade, Bakelite has really increased in popularity amongst collectors, and, as usually follows, has become more and more expensive. Single narrow bracelets can be found for less than $50, but wide-band cuff bracelets which are heavily carved can sport price tags approaching several hundred dollars each. A few really rare pieces have sold at auction for thousands of dollars.

Many people began collecting them because they were colorful and pretty, but now it’s become such a favorite that there are several reference price guides just on Bakelite. Some jewelry designers actively search for broken Bakelite, using bits and pieces to create their own creations in this wonderful material. Many of these custom jewelry designers sign their works, and it's worthwhile to consider adding these to a Bakelite collection.

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