Plastics in some form or other have been used in jewelry for many years. Celluloid was the first known plastic, invented in 1868 by John Hyatt. Then in the first part of the 20th century, casein (made from a milk protein) came along.
He best known of the plastics used in jewelry was developed by Leo H. Baekeland in 1909. Mr. Baekeland was working on developing a type of varnish when the durable material Bakelite was invented. It was found that it could be easily moulded and cast. Once it was cast, it could not be melted.
Shortly after bakelite jewelry caught on, the Great Depression of the '30s occurred. Money was scarce; women were looking for an inexpensive way to refurbish their old wardrobe and give it a new look; bakelite was the answer. One could find this unique jewelry in almost any color: red, green, and butterscotch being the most common. Bakelite jewelry added a cheery note to a bleak time in our history.
Bakelite was not only bought by people with little money, it was also accepted by the very rich. Manufacturers produced bright, massive, heavily carved pieces. Designer pieces, produced on a very limited basis, sold in departments stores in the '30s for around $10, a hefty price in those days. These pieces, understandably scarce today, were often decorated with metal, rhinestones, or additional plastic ornaments.
There seems to be no limit to the shapes found in Bakelite. Miniature fruit is quite common: pears, oranges, cherries, carrots, bananas, etc. Among the animals that are found, horses and dogs are most common.
Bakelite was used to imitate tortoiseshell, amber, and even gemstones. It was dyed to imitate coral and looked so believable that it often has to be tested to tell the difference. (Coral test: place a drop of lemon juice on the jewelry and if it bubbles and is effervescent it is coral; if not, it might be bakelite among other things.)
The 'ivory' bakelite that can be found is done with great skill. Many pieces are carved entirely by hand by fine craftsmen. If you look closely at the carved articles you can see the tool marks in the crevices, whereas the newer pieces of imitation ivory are entirely glossy as they are not carved by hand.
Bakelite, as was mentioned earlier, was often used to imitate amber. A lot of jewelry on the market today that is thought of as amber is actually bakelite. Recently, during a course I took at the Gemological Institute of America, I had a lengthy discussion with the instructor regarding, bakelite, amber and plastic. The one conclusive test he told me of was the hot needle test. The GIA has an electric needle that looks like a toaster coil. When the needle is placed on a piece of bakelite, the material will not be penetrated; whereas, true amber will melt and release a faint piney odor. This same test can be done by heating a needle with a flame until the point glows and then testing for a melting point. This is a destructive test but when in doubt it is the only test I know that is accurate. If you must know, please find an inconspicuous place by the bead hole to do your testing.
There is an enormous quantity of plastic jewelry out there. To test a piece of plastic to see if it might be bakelite, there are a couple of easy and reliable tests you can do. A quickie is simply to rub a small spot with your thumb repeatedly until it's warm from the friction, and then sniff it. Bakelite releases a distinctive odor when warmed (smell it once and you won't forget it!) Also holding it under very warm water will also make the item release the tell-tale smell. Another method is to take a cotton swab dampened with Formula 409 all-purpose cleaner and swab at an inconspicuous spot; if it's bakelite, the swab will turn a shade of yellow, which can vary from pale lemon to bright butterscotch. Interestingly, the 409 test produces a yellow stain from any color of bakelite. The latter is the most consistently reliable, the first is the least reliable.
By manufacturing bakelite to imitate coral, ivory, amber, and tortoiseshell materials by hand carving these items, jewelry buyers could look like they possessed the real thing.
These old Art Deco bakelite pieces are beautiful and have a lovely
that has taken years to produce. It is being collected for itself now,
rather than for its resemblance to more precious jewelry, and is
rising in price. Since most women did not save their plastic jewelry,
scarcity factor makes it even more valuable.
Incidentally, one may occasionally run across a piece marked either
"French Bakelite" or Galalith. This is an early plasic, produced from
milk protein, but not actually bakelite. It is indeed usually French,
but also was produced in Germany. All Galalith predates synthetic
plastics though, and production ceased around the start of WWII.
Galalith is often brightly colored. As it isn't chemically related to
bakelite (but rather is casein based) it doesn't react to Formula 409
So, the next time you see plastic jewelry thrown in a box at a flea market, look to see if any of it is bakelite, rather than the newer acrylic plastic. It may be worth more than you think. -Cheryl Stewart