- Historic Sites
May 2001 | Volume 52, Issue 3
Costume jewelry was born in the nineteenth century, using mass production to give ordinary people baubles that looked almost exactly like real gold or silver, diamonds or pearls. But Bakelite, the plastic jewelry that emerged in the 1920s, was a triumph for the twentieth century; it didn’t pretend to be anything but what it was.
Bakelite brought something new to jewelry: radiant colors in a material that could be easily molded, carved, and assembled. Companies used it to bring variety, spontaneity, and, most of all, humor to jewelry. Bakelite and other similar plastics created a challenge for designers because they could be anything: a bunch of cherries, a royal guardsman, a nurse.
The rich didn’t take long to make their way to the Bakelite couture; Coco Chanel introduced her own line of Bakelite accessories in Paris in 1925. During the Great Depression, though, people not only wanted the bright, doggedly cheerful plastic jewelry, they needed it, to dress up old outfits and also strike a bit of neon defiance at the gray mood of the business world. Anyway, a piece of Bakelite jewelry was affordable if anything was: Prices ranged from 20 cents to three dollars. For about a half-dollar, a woman could wear a pair of shoes with holes in the soles—in the form of a shiny Bakelite pin. Not even the Depression was allowed to be depressing when it was molded in Bakelite.
Pins, bangles, charms, and necklaces: $10 to $100. Plain Bakelite jewelry is plentiful, but reproductions also abound. There are two simple ways to tell a vintage piece from a later copy. First, Bakelite and most of the other early plastics have a noticeable density and heft. Second, Bakelite in particular will give off the smell of formaldehyde when it is rubbed or is placed in warm water.
Pins and necklaces go for $1,000 to $12,000. Factors that increase the price include the integration of other materials, such as wood or straw; hand painting; and the wit of depiction. Bangles range from $250 to $15,000. Unique carving, rare colors, and distinctive “Flash Gordon” designs attract serious collectors.