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Rose Mary
By Rosemary McKittrick
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Assortment of Bakelite bracelets sold in the auction. Photo courtesy of Skinner Auctioneers.
For many people, Bakelite bracelets show up like ordinary plastic. Colorful maybe. But still plastic. And they’re right. But Bakelite is the first generation of plastics. That distinction makes all the difference.

Called the material of a thousand uses, Bakelite was a standard item in the 1920s, ‘30s and ‘40s kitchen. It could be found everywhere from portable radios, flatware handles and napkin holders, to serving trays and salt and pepper shakers.

Bakelite was cheerful and cheap. When money was scarce during the Depression, a carved Bakelite pin could be had for 20 cents to $3. Decorated with rhinestones, it managed to look dazzling on a cocktail dress or dark jacket.

Art Deco jewelers thought of Bakelite not so much as a substitute for better materials but as an exciting new material. The best Bakelite is heavy, shiny and exceptionally sturdy. Jewelry makers realized Bakelite could not only be colored and carved but also made translucent.

Bakelite bracelets combined with chrome have a strong design and ‘Machine Age’ look collectors love. The jewelry can be found today in many Art Deco shops and vintage clothing stores. In the end, less labor-intensive plastics like vinyl, acrylic and fiberglass replaced Bakelite.

In the mid-1970s, artist and flea market junkie, Andy Warhol fell in love with Bakelite carvings. He bought every piece he could find and accumulated a huge collection.

After his death, the Bakelite collection sold at Sotheby’s New York in 1988. From that point on, interest and prices soared.

People appreciated the burst of color and freshness when simple red, green, and yellow bangle bracelets were combined together on a woman’s arm. Plus, the intricately carved rings, pins, bracelets and necklaces suited almost any wardrobe. Nothing too serious here. Bakelite was fun.

Given the growing interest in the jewelry, imitation Bakelite called Fakelite started to show up on the market. It’s made overseas and carved to look like the real thing.

It’s helpful to remember that most genuine Bakelite has some age to it. It’s going to look it. There may be tiny nicks or chips. It’s the type of wear you wouldn’t expect to see in brand new plastic.

The weight is also a clue. Bakelite feels heavier than regular plastic. There’s a distinctive “clunk” sound when two bangle bracelets bump together on the wrist.

The most common test for genuineness in Bakelite is smell. Place the jewelry under running hot water. Then smell it. The real Bakelite has a distinctive formaldehyde odor. That’s because Bakelite is a combination of carbolic acid and formaldehyde.

Some of the knock offs are actually made from old Bakelite or old Bakelite radio cases from the 1930s. As you can see, finding the real thing can be a mine field.

On March 15, Skinner Auctioneers in Boston, Mass., featured a selection of vintage Bakelite in its Fine Jewelry auction. Everything from belt buckles, to dog, frog and horse brooches and carved fish bangles were offered.

Here are some current values for Bakelite jewelry.


Frog brooch; cherry red frog, movable arm playing stringed instrument; 2 7/8 inch interior circumference; $1,058.

Bakelite bangle bracelets; 3; each heavily carved in licorice, butterscotch and cherry; 8 inch interior circumference; $2,468.

Cigarette brooch; cigarette suspending three bunches of matches; 3 inch interior circumference; $3,760.

Injected dot bangle bracelets; 2; in lime and orange with cream dots; 8 inch interior circumference; $5,405.

Bangle bracelet; heavily carved with palm trees and flowers; from the Warhol collection; 7 3/4 inch interior circumference; $6,756.

Injected dot bangle bracelets; 2; in licorice and cherry; both with cream dots; 8 inch interior circumference; $8,225.

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