Beautiful Bakelite
By Paula Kirwan and Karen Parr-Moody

Mark Davis works out of a Brooklyn workshop with a unlikely combination of materials: Bakelite and semi-precious stones. He takes vintage Bakelite bangles, such as the translucent green one in the photo, right, and covers them with gems. This one, called "Josephine," is sprinkled with 35 blue topaz gemstones mounted in gold.

The fascination with Bakelite began when this early plastic was developed in 1907 — and it continues to this day. Bakelite helped to usher in what is known, among chemists, as the Polymer Age or the Age of Plastics. The word "plastic" encompasses a variety of synthetic, or manmade, polymers.

Chemists did not fully understand or identify polymers until around 1900, but there were forerunners. One such was celluloid, an early plastic that American inventor John Wesley Hyatt created out of chemically modified cellulose in 1870. People were amazed by this product that was used for everything from billiard balls to hair combs. It was fashionable during the Victorian era to own items made of ivory, but hunters had almost decimated the elephant herds of Africa and India, leading to a need for a material that resembled elephant's tusks. To this day, celluloid items can be found at GasLamp; I found some ivory-like carved cameos there myself.

But what grabbled jewelry designers by the lapels was Leo Baekland's invention of Bakelite, the world's first wholly synthetic. It could be molded very quickly and was less expensive to make than celluloid; both features represented an enormous advantage in mass production processes.

As Bakelite's popularity grew, it coincided with the emergence of Art Deco style. This era's jewelry took on the sleek lines seen in its famous buildings, such as the Empire State Building (1931) and Chrysler Building (1930) in New York. Such stunning, geometric jewelry designs were found at the high end of the spectrum from jewelry houses such as Harry Winston, Tiffany & Company and Van Cleef & Arpels.

But during the Great Depression, the need to develop a market for less expensive jewelry became evident, and this is where Bakelite found its mark. A woman of this era could put on a pair of clip earrings, such as the Bakelite style seen in the photo, left (one of a pair; $195; Showcase S-529). She could then go to the theater in style, where she watched such films as “The Gay Divorcee” and “Grand Hotel” to escape the daily economic pressures of the Great Depression.

Bakelite designs were quite popular in mass merchandise stores such as Sears and Roebuck, but there were also some famous names working with the material, including Chanel and Van Cleef & Arpels. Chanel was particularly instrumental in promoting costume jewelry as an attractive and acceptable way to wear jewelry, giving accessibility to the average woman, who could purchase stylish pieces without spending a lot of money. Bakelite was eventually used in everything from handbags to belt buckles (detail of buckle shown in photo, right; $28, Showcase S-504).

Due to its ability to be molded, Bakelite items can be found with geometric patterns stamped into them. The bird finding in the photo, below left, is such an example (one of a pair shown; priced together at $28; Showcase S-504). The bird has graceful lines flowing along its wings and tail; bracelets and earrings of this time period can also be found at GasLamp stamped with their own graceful lines.

Baekeland's creation started the revolution that became the modern plastics industry. And to this day, women love to collect the beautiful Bakelite jewelry to add a whiff of Art Deco romance to their outfits.

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