A Bakelite Collector's Odyssey
The Lerch Collection of Bakelite Jewelry
Over forty years ago, Manhattan physician Robert Lerch purchased a red and black Bakelite clasp bracelet with a geometric Art Deco design. That was the beginning of a Bakelite collection that has grown to approximately 2,000 pieces of jewelry as well as 3,000 other objects, such as radios, buttons, clocks, boxes, umbrella handles, and knives.
Belgian-born chemist Dr. Leo Baekeland invented Bakelite in the early 1900s while living in the Yonkers, New York community of Harmony Park. Working in a barn turned laboratory behind his home, he combined phenol, or carbolic acid, with formaldehyde to produce what he described as an artificial resinoid that was heat- and solvent-resistant and could be molded under pressure into various forms. He eponymously named it Bakelite.
Bakelite was rapidly adopted for a wide range of household and industrial products, including the hard black telephone and the square Brownie camera case. Initially, it was only available in dark colors of brown and black, acceptable in the industrial world but less appropriate for decorative objects and fashion accessories. Subsequent modification of the Bakelite production process yielded a transparent form called cast phenolic that could be manufactured in a wide range of brilliant and marbleized colors. With this discovery, Bakelite entered the jewelry-making arena. Soon, jewelry workshops were transforming Bakelite rods and sheets into bracelets, beads, buttons, and brooches that were offered at very affordable prices. But Bakelite was not just for the five-and-dime. New York’s B. Altman, Lord & Taylor, Bergdorf Goodman, and Saks Fifth Avenue stocked their counters with higher-end Bakelite creations, and Coco Chanel included Bakelite pieces in her costume jewelry line.
Bakelite became especially popular during the Great Depression when availability of expensive raw materials such as onyx, jade, and coral was limited. Production peaked in the 1930s and early 1940s, but subsequently dwindled when inhalation of Bakelite dust was linked with lung disease.
Lerch’s fascination with Bakelite began in the late 1970s when he encountered a dealer at a New York City flea market who sold him the Art Deco bracelet that started the collection. He was mesmerized by the colors and textures of the material and by the uniqueness of each handmade piece. For him, these Bakelite objects represented a form of American folk art. He continues to collect today, scouring as many as two hundred auction catalogues each week, looking for the distinctive and the exceptional.
The objects from Lerch’s collection illustrate the versatility and beauty of Bakelite and its widespread application in jewelry making in the 1930s and 1940s.
The Art Deco Society extends a special thanks to Dr. Robert Lerch and Julie Windsor for their contributions to this article.
Robert Lerch, M.D., continues to buy and sell Bakelite and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Objects from his collection are on display at the bakelitemuseum.com.
Article originally published in the Art Deco New York journal, Vol. 1, Issue 2, Winter 2016. View a digital version of the full journal here.
Overdyed articulated wolverine pin.
Photo: Robert Lerch
Bakelite color chart. Photo: Meghan Weatherby
Group of "six dot" polka dot bracelets. Photo: Robert Lerch
Carved bracelet. Photo: Meghan Weatherby
Marbleized bracelet. Photo: Meghan Weatherby
Multicolor laminated striped bracelet.
Photo: Robert Lerch
Unusual Bakelite and metal snail bracelet
and pin. Photo: Robert Lerch
Geometric multicolor pin. Photo: Robert Lerch
Dr. Lerch's Bakelite gallery. Photo: Meghan Weatherby