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Art Deco Jewelry
with PLASTIC

by Patrick Kapty

 

Rare and wonderful Henkel & Grosse chrome and galalith necklace.

Photo courtesy Tadema Gallery
 

One of my very first finds as a budding young collector was a mysterious and marvelous Art Deco Bakelite geometric clip brooch that I found in a box of odds and ends at a flea market in the LA area back in the late 1960s. What attracted me then to this particular item was its strong design and vividly colored material. At the time I had no word for the style of the brooch, and all I could say about the material was that it was some kind of plastic, but it caught my eye and piqued my curiosity. I remember thinking that the brooch reminded me of an old movie theater facade. And from that point, I can trace my journey of discovery that has lasted nearly my whole life to this day, and shaped the art and jewelry dealer that I have become.

Chrome and Galalith Necklace.

When I think of the Art Deco style, probably the first word that comes to mind is geometric. The Art Deco style in it's purest form is characterized by bare-bones geometric shapes with minimal decoration, and this sleek style is also known as moderne or machine age. Of course in the real world nothing remains pure for long, and Art Deco was no exception to that rule.

Pair of carved Bakelite
 geometric clips.

 

 

 

 

 

Chrome and Galaith necklace.

The geometric style was often joined with figurative motif, or the figurative motif was rendered in a geometric fashion a la cubism. Art Deco jewelry inspired and was inspired by machinery (thus the name “Machine Age”), advanced transportation of the time like aircraft, railroad and cruise ships, architecture, and the fine and decorative arts.
 

 

 

 

 

Group of Bakelite and metal jewelry, some with rhinestone​s.

 

 

 

Group of  Bakelite and chrome jewelry.

Though many sources point to the pivotal exhibition in Paris in 1925, “L'Exposition Internationale des Artes Decoratifs et Industriels Modernes” as the genesis of the style, in actuality that exhibition was really more a coming-of-age for the fledgling style that drew  inspiration from many sources including earlier art movements such as the Glasgow group, the Wiener Werkstatte, the Jugenstil, and the Arts and Crafts movement in Britain and the US.
 

 

 

Possibly French necklace in green galalith with cut crystal and chrome metal on black silk cord.

In addition, Art Deco borrowed liberally from various international art sources from ancient Egypt and the Aztecs of Mexico to the far east, and everywhere that Art Deco went it intermarried with local design traditions and motif to create unique local interpretations such as the tropical deco style of Miami Beach, and the pueblo deco found in the American southwest.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Three versions of the Art Deco 'disks in a row' brooch, the middle one is celluloid, the outer two are both Bakelite.

The Art Deco period proper covers the years between the two world wars, or about 1918 to 1941 or thereabouts. However, the Art Deco style has seen many revivals since then, and in one form or another is still around to this day nearly a century later.

Group of geometric design multi-colored Bakelite brooches and clips.
 

Bakelite

Two geometric design bracelets, one with matching earrings.

Art Deco was about the future and being modern, and reveled in the use of new and novel materials. From Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers tap-dancing on the wings of airplanes over the beaches of Rio de Janeiro in a Hollywood movie to penthouse night clubs atop the glittering New York skyscraper strewn skyline, Art Deco was a style that decorated nearly everything, and could be found on objects as large as cruise ships and as small as bangle bracelets worn by fiercely modern flappers.

 

 

 

 

 

Bakelite and gilt metal necklace.
 

 

 


Celluloid was common in the 1920s for carved and hand-painted bangles often in exotic Asian or Egyptian themes, and the later rhinestone-studded bangles done in bright colors and bold geometric designs. After about 1930 Celluloid wasn't used as often as the primary material in Art Deco plastic jewelry, but still could be found as parts or findings such as neck chains from which other plastics such as Bakelite would be hung. In the US Bakelite became the plastic of choice for roughly the next ten years, while in Europe Galalith was favored. Around the end of the 1930s Lucite was becoming more popular in plastic jewelry, and thus you can see some of the same designs that were done in Bakelite earlier being re-done in Lucite, and often mixed with other materials such as wood or ceramics.
 

Three celluloid and rhinestone pins.

Chrome and galalith necklaces.
 

1930s advertisem​ent for Auguste Bonaz.
 

Though most period Art Deco jewelry with plastic is unsigned, there were a few designers that made their mark and whose work is recognized and desirable today. In Paris, Auguste Bonaz made everything from stunning asymmetrical geometric necklaces in plastic and metal to hair clips and other accessories. His work is often signed and commands high prices with collectors.

1930s advertisem​ent for Auguste Bonaz.
 

 

 



Art Deco jewelry and boxes
by Auguste Bonaz.

 


 

The Germans are best known for their sleek and severe stream-lined modern creations where the plastic is set as a jewel decorating the mainly metal design. Both Henkel & Grosse and the firm of Jakob Bengel made outstanding pieces in this genre.

Jakob Bengel chrome, enamel, and galalith necklaces.

Photos courtesy Tadema Gallery.
 

 

 

 

 

Rare and wonderful Henkel & Grosse galalith and chrome necklace.

Photo courtesy Tadema Gallery.

 

 

 

 

Jakob Bengel design set from 1933.

Pictured in 'Art Deco Schmuck' p. 229

 

On the other side of the Atlantic in New York city, Belle Kogan was having fun creating variations of simple geometric designs such as her stretched polka dot bracelets that always create collector interest when they come up for sale. Movie star and designer Martha Sleeper was probably the most innovative and inventive American designer of the period. She mixed and matched plastics with other materials to create unusual and striking designs that are prized by collectors today.
 



Stack of Bakelite square dot bangles and three rare design Belle Kogan Bakelite dot bangles.

Photograph courtesy Jill Crawford
Photograph by Marbeth Schon


Identification and Evaluation of Art Deco
 plastic Jewelry


The four main plastics used in the Art Deco period in jewelry were Celluloid, Galalith, Bakelite and Lucite. Celluloid, or cellulose nitrate, is a thermoplastic i.e. it can be molded using heat, and was first used as a cheaper replacement for natural materials such as ivory. However, it was quite flammable, and was gradually replaced in the early 30s with its chemical cousin cellulose acetate. Both versions are commonly referred to as 'celluloid' by collectors today.

 

 

 

 

Three celluloid
geometric design pins.

 

 

Galalith was much more popular in Europe in the 30s and replaced Celluloid in jewelry due to it's more attractive and varied colors and greater durablity.

Two chrome and galalith bracelets.

In America Bakelite (phenyl formaldehyde) was the plastic of choice for its many vivid colors and high shine and durability. Bakelite's one glaring flaw was that its colors tended to yellow and darken over time. By the end of the decade, jewelry makers were becoming aware of this, and often they would use Bakelite's chemical cousin, urea formaldehyde in situations where color fastness was important.
For instance, earlier Bakelite patriotic jewelry in red, white, and blue, by the time of the war had come to resemble the yellow, red and black of Hitler's regime  too closely, and so you will find some pieces of Bakelite jewelry that have urea formaldehyde replacing the phenyl formaldehyde for the white and blue sections and thus are still red, white and blue today.

WWII patriotic Bakelite
(phenyl and urea formaldehyde)
cast carved and hand-painted
anchor and globe brooch.

In identifying vintage Art Deco plastic jewelry always remember that most of it was hand-made. Though the materials were made in a factory, they were sold to jewelry-fabricators in sheets and rods and other shapes, and then were cut and shaped and carved and polished by hand. So, if you see a seam-line on your plastic item, it's not likely from the original Art Deco period, and isn't one of the above listed plastics.
 



Group of geometric Bakelite bangles.

Photo courtesy Jill Crawford.
Photograph by Marbeth Schon
 

Also, pieces are usually joined with screws or rivets rather than glued, though glue was used when laminating multiple layers of plastic. Necklaces usually have spring-ring or barrel closures, whereas newer reproduction Art Deco style pieces from the 50s or later have other types such as hook and ring closures. However, reproduction pieces from the 1980s and later often have the correct type of closure, and thus are harder to identify.

 

 

 

Jakob Bengel chrome and galalith necklace.

Photo courtesy Tadema Gallery.

 

Bakelite screw-back earrings.

Photo courtesy M. Schon Gallery
 

American earrings were clip or screw-backs, but in Europe the lever-back was the favored closure. Most of all, remember that the bulk of this jewelry is fast approaching the century mark, and should show some signs of it's journey through time. The metal parts were usually plated, and often show wear-thru as well as fine scratching.
The different plastics age differently, but each have characteristic age patterns. As noted above, Bakelite jewelry yellows and darkens over time, so you'll rarely see bright light colors such as white which in most cases has turned a pale yellow. Galalith and Celluloid both are softer plastics than Bakelite and Lucite, so you should expect to see more wear evident in jewelry examples. Fine scratching and small chips in out-of-the-way places are actually good news for collectors today as they go a long way in establishing that a piece of jewelry is a genuine example from the period and not one of the many fakes and frauds that are flooding the market these days.

 

 

Three cherry-red Bakelite bracelets.

 

 

 

Interestingly, the GIA suggests using a hot pin test to identify genuine amber versus Bakelite beads. Both materials were common in the 30s in long flapper necklaces. I don't recommend the hot pin test for anyone except advanced collectors as some vintage plastics like  celluloid can actually catch on fire, and it is likely that the test will do more harm than good in inexperienced hands.
With the meteoric rise in the value of Bakelite jewelry over the last couple decades, we have seen the emergence of a plethora of tests using toxic household cleansers for identifying Bakelite.

 


 

Two carved Bakelite 'question mark' pins
 - each 4" by 2".


Remember – Bakelite is made from formaldehyde which is so toxic that the CDC uses it to kill the Ebola virus – and it's not a good idea to be rubbing Bakelite jewelry with caustic bathroom chemicals especially when you've no idea of the possible chemical reaction that could occur when doing so or the long-term consequences for your health.

These 'tests' are the jewelry equivalent of the diet pill, and are a 'fast and easy' attempt to leap-frog years of hard work and experience in identifying antique and vintage jewelry.

Four geometric Bakelite bangles.

Photo courtesy Jill Crawford.
Photograph by Shirley Byrne
 

There is no replacement for experience, and probably the best way to get it at minimal cost is to attend antique shows or fairs and look at lots of vintage Art Deco jewelry for sale by reputable dealers that specialize in it. These dealers are often a great source for identification and evaluation of vintage jewelry, but won't always have time for every question while they are working. Another way to maximize your knowledge for minimal cost is to purchase a few of the many books on the subject – see my list of books below for some recommendations. Another great source of information are the many fine collector groups that meet either in person (if you're lucky and live in an area near such a group) or online. Jewelry collectors are usually passionate creatures that love to share their insight and knowledge (and treasures!) with others. A great resource for pricing is old auction catalogs, many of which are available for browsing online.

 

 

Three wonderful bright green marbled 'dot' Bakelite bracelets.

 

 

The most important words that a new collector can learn are: caveat emptor – buyer beware! There are many reproductions and downright fakes on the market these days. One term en vogue today to beware is 'french bakelite'. This is a misnomer as items made from this material are often neither French nor bakelite, but a look-alike material usually made in China last week. Less stringent dealers will often use words like 'bakelite era' or 'bakelite style' or even 'faux bakelite' and once again these items are usually not bakelite and not old either.

Jakob Bengel chrome and galalith necklace.

Photo courtesy Tadema Gallery

I've noticed that since the publication of the two books on Jakob Bengel jewelry in the last decade, a lot of dealers use the name 'Bengel' as a synonym for this type of jewelry, whether they can reasonably establish that the item is by Bengel or not. As most of Bengel's jewelry wasn't signed, better dealers will refer you to a known design by Bengel in one of the books so that you can make your own comparison and make up your own mind about the authenticity of the claimed origins of the piece.
There are many factors that go into establishing a price for an item of genuine Art Deco plastic jewelry. To my mind, first and foremost is the  quality of the design. The most godawful piece of jewelry may be made from genuine galalith or bakelite, but if it doesn't have a shred of style or flair than what's the point? Along with the quality of the design, I consider the color and size. Given the same brooch in the same materials in two sizes, hands-down the larger will be worth more. Often brighter colors or high-contrast color combinations will see greater values too.

A riot of Bakelite rings!

Photo courtesy Jill Crawford
Photograph by Shirley Byrne
 

Correct identification of materials is a factor because often the same design in one plastic compared with another plastic will bring a different price. Many of the late 30s Lucite figurals that are line for line the same as the versions in Bakelite will bring  much less money than the Bakelite version. Another important factor to consider is the condition. Although it's many a collectors dream to find a vintage piece in perfect flawless condition, this situation should actually be a cause for concern. After all, these items are nearing the century mark, and shouldn't look brand-new.

Two celluloid brooches and two celluloid hat pins.

 

There are always exceptions of course, but beware the too-often-heard claim of a warehouse find or other tall tale most likely intended to cause you to suspend your judgment in a situation too good to be true. Look for age-appropriate wear, and take off marks if the wear and tear to a piece are extreme or take away from the charm of a piece, but consider too little or no wear a major red flag.

Two Bakelite and metal bracelets.
 

Most of the time vintage plastic jewelry is unsigned and un-attributable, but be aware of the exceptions as many of them will be of much higher value than the run of the mill piece because of the designer name. Lastly, the rarity of a design can greatly affect the value given to a piece. However, there are cases where a piece is so rare that no comparison values are easily available, and these pieces can often be undervalued by less-experience dealers. Once again, reference books and catalogs are extremely helpful in establishing the relative rarity of an item. All of these factors together are considered when evaluating an item for it's market value.

 

 

 

 

The 'Philadelphia' bracelet - 5 color laminated hinged bangle.

 

 

Collecting vintage Art Deco plastic jewelry is a joy that can literally last you a life-time. Buy what you love, and share it with others. Collecting is like karma, the more you give and share with others, the more that will come back to you. Hoarders on the other hand end up miserable and on that horrible TV show.
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Suggested reading:

 Art Plastic – Designed for Living – Andrea DiNoto – 1984 Abbeville

The Bakelite Jewelry Book – Davidov and Dawes – 1988 Abbeville

European Designer Jewelry – Ginger Moro – 1995 Schiffer

The Bakelite Collection – Matthew Burkholz – 1997 Schiffer

Bakelite Jewelry – The Art of the Carver – Tororiello & Lyons - 2008 Schiffer

Art Deco Schmuck – Christianne Weber – 2002 Arnoldsche

Bengel Art Deco Schmuck – Lindemann – 2007 Arnoldsche

Collecting Art Plastic Jewelry – Leigh Leshner – 2005 KP

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Article by Patrick Kapty

 “Patrick Kapty California Dreamin Retro Modern”
(760) 671-4879

 
http://stores.ebay.com/California-Dreamin-Retro-Modern-ETC

Web design by Marbeth Schon
www.mschon.com

A big thank you to  Tadema Gallery, London, England.  www.tademagallery.com

Thanks also to Patrick Kapty, Jill Crawford, and M. Schon Gallery.  www.mschon.com

 

copyright © MODERN SILVER magazine, 2011