Imagine, you are a woman living in the 1920s. It is Valentines Day and you are going out dancing with your fiance. You are dressed in your best dress and hat, and wearing a new necklace which you simply adore. Your fiance sent it over this morning as an early Valentines surprise, and you want to wear it for him. It is a bakelite necklace, made out of the hard plastic which you so often see in household items. It is amazing stuff - the things you can do with it, even make intricately carved beads! You know it probably didn't cost a lot, but it is just so 'you'. He chose well!
When I took this bakelite necklace to show the children, they thought it was beautiful. The intricately carved beads, subdued, elegant colours and simple design was according to one child 'timeless'. The children were not particularly surprised to discover that this type of jewellery is very collectable today. They were surprised to discover that many of the pieces sell for more today than they did when they were first created though!
Bakelite is one of the worlds oldest plastics. The first plastic, celluloid, was invented in 1868 by John Hyatt, and in the early years of the 20th century, casein was invented. These plastics were useful, but bakelite was to take the world by storm. It was invented by Leo H. Baekeland in 1909, when he was trying to create a varnish. He accidentally invented bakelite instead. Bakelite was very durable and, once it had been cast, it would not melt or change shape, a problem with other early plastics. It could also be created in a rainbow of different colours, from vibrant reds, yellows, greens and blues to earthy browns, pure white and deep black. Bakelite could even be made to look like much more expensive materials like tortoiseshell, amber and gemstones. Its durability, the way it could easily be cast in a variety of shapes and the range of colours made it perfect not only for making household items, but for making jewellery.
Not long after bakelite jewellery started to be produced, the Great Depression hit. In such a bleak time, people wanted an inexpensive way to brighten their homes, but especially their appearance. Clothing was expensive to replace so most people wore their clothes until they began to fall apart, and even then, repaired them as often as possible, as you can see in an earlier post by clicking here. Others used flour sacks and any other fabric they could get their hands on to make clothing. An inexpensive way to add a splash of style and colour was, naturally, going to be popular. Bakelite jewellery was affordable for many people and came in all different shapes and styles. Brooches, pendants, necklaces, hatpins, bracelets, bangles, earings, tie pins - you name it, they were made out of bakelite. Some of the pieces were simple and stylish, others were light hearted and humourous and many were made with the clean lines and elegance of the art deco era. Bakelite wasn't only for the poor and those down on their luck though. Some pieces, which were sold to the rich were embellished with metal, cut glass, rhinestones and other plastics. The necklace I showed the children is made of round beads of bakelite, carved into intricate shapes and designs and is very beautiful. The reddish brown and black is also one of the most popular colour combinations of the era. If you would like to learn more about bakelite jewellery, click here.