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Bakelite - the material of a thousand uses

logo of Bakelite Ltd.Bakelite is probably the most collectible — and valuable — plastic in existence today. Many books have been published on this material, and a search on Google will yield hundreds of results. Because there are so many sites out there that already specialize in Bakelite, it's not the focus of this site. But here's a little background on this phenolic resin.

Bakelite was discovered in 1909 by a New York chemist, Belgian-born Dr. Leo Hendrik Baekeland, the son of a shoemaker. He was 46 years old at the time, and had previously invented Velox photographic paper, which was bought by the Kodak Company for $750,000 — this money allowed Baekeland to work independently from a home laboratory.

In 1910, Baekeland obtained a patent and started the Bakelite Corporation. A polymer of formaldehyde and phenol, bakelite was highly heat-resistant and could be added to most materials (even softwood) to make them more durable. For the first decade, the company manufactured industrial products like auto and electrical parts. Dr. Baekeland appeared on the cover of Time magazine on September 22, 1924, when he was president of the American Chemical Society.

In the 1920s, production began on bakelite jewellery; the colourful pieces were attractive and affordable to those affected by the Great Depression. They could be produced in various colours, but the most common were yellow, butterscotch, red, green and brown. Bakelite could also be transparent, or marbelized by mixing two colours. Coco Chanel featured bakelite items in her accessories collection, and the material was praised frequently in Vogue magazine.

The jewellery remained popular until production halted in 1942 — materials had to be concentrated on the war effort (to make phones, goggles, etc.). By the time the war ended, a new generation of plastics had taken over, and bakelite became obsolete. Dr. Baekeland passed away in 1944 in Beacon, New York, at age 80.

Bakelite jewellery came back on the scene when Andy Warhol, a prolific collector of these pieces, passed away in 1987. His collection went up for auction at Sotheby's and fetched record prices.

Nowadays, you can find bakelite pieces through many vintage and antique dealers. Bangles are the most common trinkets and often sell for about US$100-US$500 (or more); rings are harder to find, as they were less likely to have survived over the years (due to their small size). Some jewellers rework old pieces of the material to create new jewellery — the best-known of these artists are Ron and Ester Shultz, who create "Shultz Bakelite," which can be identified by its high gloss finish.

Although most sources say bakelite is no longer produced, there is at least one bakelite company in existence: Sumitomo Bakelite Group of Tokyo, Japan. Sumitomo is the present incarnation of Sankyo Co., Ltd., which originated plastics production in Japan in 1911 after Baekeland granted legal permission to his friend Dr. Jokichi Takamine.

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