Welcome to a new series about vintage plastics and those who love them. This week I chatted to Jesse Fowler from Brighter Bakelite.
Ever wondered why you never seem to find certain colours of Bakelite jewellery in the wild? Chances are the hard-to-find hues such as violets, blues and hot pinks have been covered up by decades of patina and dirt.
Unlike other plastics, authentic Bakelite, oxidizes over the years developing a coating of patina which changes the surface colour so white pieces become yellow, blue becomes green, pink becomes orange and violet becomes brown etc.
Due to the patina, it’s very rare to find Bakelite in those colors, making them more collectible (not to mention expensive!).
42-year-old Jesse Fowler is on a mission to restore patina’d Bakelite to its original rainbow colours and splendour. His business Brighter Bakelite was the first to offer polished Bakelite commercially.
Having studied the properties of Bakelite and Catalin, the Portland based artisan and restorer has devised a lengthy process of removing the patina and polishing the jewellery to an ever higher shine than it originally possessed.
Avoiding the use of chemicals, metal polishers and heat, his restoration method retains the structural integrity of each piece and leaves the surface molecules more uniform so the patina will take longer to return.
He also creates his own artisanal pieces using old Bakelite stock – each project is more ambitious than the last– and sells them in his at vintage and trade fairs and in his Etsy store.
Fowler says Brighter Bakelite is his “full-time gig” and he intends to do it for the rest of his life.
Read on to find out more about his passion for plastics!
Can you tell us about what you do? I understand you started out restoring Bakelite as a service but now you mainly create your own artisan pieces from old Bakelite stock, is that right?
Most of what I do still is find pieces that will be exceptional colors (I have X-ray eyes now), and carefully restore them. I do have about a ton (literally) of factory stock that I’m slowly getting into making pieces from.
How long has Brighter Bakelite been up and running?
I have been on Etsy for about three and a half years, and I restored Bakelite as a paid hobby before that.
How did you come up with the idea for the business?
My hobbies and jobs have included working with my hands, from small carving, to a successful career as an antique old-world style furniture reproducer, in which I was considered a master, and had my pieces in a special edition of Phoenix home and Gardens magazine called Masters of the Southwest.
I have worked with every medium, and have always loved making things shine (including myself at Burning Man, where I paint myself silver).
I restored vintage clothing and jewelry professionally for FabGabs for a few years, from putting 1920s dresses with completely rotted seams back together, to leather shoes and handbags, and jewelry of every kind– everything you can imagine.
One day, I was looking at her Bakelite jewelry collection thinking that it had to be more pretty underneath, but then, had no idea how much the patina covers up! Once I did a few, her friends noticed, and it spread like wildfire from there.
How you work out how to restore Bakelite to its original sheen and lustre? Can you allude to your technique without giving away your secrets?
To be accurate; I actually give them a higher shine than they originally had. I have a library of books of the era that explain all of the methods of working with the material.
The shine I put on them helps seal the surface molecularly, to keep the patina from returning as quickly.
My method is a culmination of what I have learned while working with other materials including wood, metal, glass, stone, and modern plastics.
What do you find most satisfying about what you do?
That’s a tough question because it is cathartic for me sometimes when I carve. It is very soothing, and I like to see how it turns out since I never use a pattern, and often don’t have a clear outcome in mind. For example; the pineapple piece I did was supposed to be a simple pattern, but I just kept going.
Equally satisfying is feedback from customers that are impressed with my work that will enjoy wearing it for years to come. One criteria I have for work (since I’ve never really had a normal job) is that it has to make people happy.
Isn’t it dangerous to restore Bakelite given that it includes asbestos, formaldehyde and other nasties?
Yes. The factories are now Superfund sites (polluted locations), and many people got cancer (of the larynx, specifically) that worked in them.
Bakelite jewellery doesn’t have asbestos in it, but it does have phenol and formaldehyde, which are both toxic.
My exhaust system is a feat in its own right. Every station in which I create dust has an opening to the negative pressure system that sucks the dust away. It is so powerful that it took a bangle away, out of my hands, before I put screens on it!
I also have a full coverage suit like the ones used in labs, and respirators that have cartridges so fine that they can filter mold spores.
Can you talk a bit about the two camps of Bakelite fans– those that love patina and those who prefer the original Bakelite colours? Why is there such a divide?
When I first started, I got some serious, angry messages–in fact, I got them before I started! I have had stalkers that did everything they could to keep me from having a business. However, many of them have converted and are now customers, once they understood what I do.
I have been in the professional vintage world a long time, and it is common that people stick to what they have learned, whether it be true or not. There are constant arguments about dating pieces and such, but what I do can’t be refuted anymore.
The camps have mostly combined, and I even like some pieces with patina on them. There are pieces that I won’t restore because I like them as is.
There was a woman that hated what I do because she spent a lot of time and money collecting pieces that had very little patina, and was known for it. She was the only person who consistently had blueish, purplish, and pinkish colors. She understood about the colors underneath, but didn’t like the competition. She is now a customer, and good acquaintance.
There will always be people who only want patina’d pieces, and that’s fine by me, since there are hundreds of thousands of those pieces out there.
What is it about vintage plastics that attracted you in the first place?
Having grown up very poor, I have shopped for my clothes at thrift stores all of my life. Back in the day, I would constantly see huge marbled bookends, radios, picture frames, and other pieces that were hard to see past.
In more recent times, I have worked with plastics, mostly acrylates (Lucite’s spawn), for other projects. In fact, i made an upper level clear dance floor for my mobile dance club for Burning Man. It was a 18′ by 8′ floor that was completely clear (Yes people knew before they went up there!). I have had appreciation for all things vintage (before they even started calling it that), and of course, Bakelite was prolific.
How did you learn so much about plastics?
I’m a total nerd when it comes to things that interest me. I have to know every detail. So I sought out books from the 20s through the early 50s that have Bakelite information in them.
I also sought out people with info that can’t be found anywhere else. For instance; I traveled to New Jersey to meet the daughter of (Bakelite inventor) Leo Baekeland’s personal assistant (who was the first to have the idea of making jewelry out of it), and she is a trove of knowledge, at 93 years old! She is as sharp as a tack, and fun to talk to.
I collect magazines, and any publication that even has a blurb about working with Bakelite.
When did you start collecting Bakelite?
I can’t recall if I collected Bakelite specifically before getting into this business. I bought deco jewelry and gave it to girlfriends in the 1980s. Now, I know that it was tens of thousands of dollars worth! I was attracted to white gold, silver and platinum with diamonds and jewels. The thrift stores didn’t care!
I would have to say that I actually started specifically collecting plastics when I started this business.
Can you describe your particular taste/ aesthetic? What sort of designs draw you most?
My preference has always been art deco. Even long before I knew what it was, I would buy things/ clothes at the thrift stores that were 1930s and the jewelry, furniture, and other things that had design to them that I was attracted to were very deco. This is fortunate because I believe that the design of a piece made from an era specific material should be of that era.
If I got yardage of 1940s fabric, I would make something of that era from it. I also have books about art deco design and have learned a lot about how it came about, and how the physical designs, like sculpture, furniture, and jewelry is based on mathematical equation, like the Fibonacci sequence (although they used geometry to make patterns rather than numbers).
Nature produces the most pleasing shapes, like conch shells, and their growth is based on these equations. That’s the easiest way to describe it. Sorry if I’m nerding out on this!
Can you tell us about your personal vintage plastics collection? How vast is it? And what plastics does it include?
Naturally, I come across some interesting things made of Bakelite, and I mostly stick to that material as what I collect. I have always been attracted to vintage and antique tools and personal care items, so I have lots of shaving utensils, a couple of hair dryers, and other grooming pieces/ sets.
I like the pieces that people didn’t know that the Bakelite Corporation made, like my rain jacket, some coat hangers, pool floatie. I also love medical and quack devices. There is an electric wand that is impossible to find at an affordable price because it is popular in the fetish scene. It has detachable ends that give off electric spark that can be adjusted, and you can see the electricity flowing through the glass to your skin. It’s pretty great! You can turn it up and run a current through several people.
I have several heated rolling massagers that are ribbed rubber with Bakelite handles that work pretty well. I wish I had them when I raced bicycles semi professionally.
I would use a kitchen roller to roll the lactic acid build up from my muscles. I have lots of carved Bakelite trinkets and such, and jewelry pieces that I will reproduce before I release them. I use Bakelite serving trays, flatware, bar utensils, etc.
I had a fondue party in which just about everything used had Bakelite in/ on it… and I have various games, and multiple gambling games in suitcases, some having 8 games in one, with Bakelite being the prominent material of all of them.
I notice you are often listing pieces for sale online, given that Bakelite etc is a finite source do you ever worry about the supply drying up?
In several of my books, they list how many tons of Bakelite was made for that year. There were thousands of tons of Bakelite cast for jewelry each year in the years between the Bakelite corp selling the patent in 1937, and the beginning of the US involvement in WII in 1942. And pieces that weren’t made for jewelry specifically can and have been used. I have hundreds of pounds of game pieces, broken trophy pieces, and about 200 pounds of jukebox stock alone.
There is also Bakelite impregnated wood jewelry that most collectors don’t even know about. There is a lot of it out there, but it *is* a finite resource. Being fully engulfed in the medium, I find out where the caches are. If I won the lottery (although I don’t play), I know where I could buy at least another 5 tons of it, mostly factory stock. With the ton I have now, I could make jewelry for the rest of my life without having to buy any more. However, I am obsessed and buy Bakelite almost every day! I have tips about where to find it in other countries as well.
Do you have any tips for shopping for Bakelite ?
I have so many tips, I really need to write a specific blog. For instance; I just bought a 26mm wide semi translucent pink piece from a knowledgeable dealer for a good price because it didn’t pass the rub test.
Jesse’s Bakelite quick tips:
If you can, experience as much Bakelite jewelry as you can in person. Visit people with collections or stores that have it. You can eventually recognize it by sight. I do know that there isn’t that much of it there, so look at many pictures, and get to know the nuances as much as possible, especially marbled pieces.
Practice the tests. The rub test is the most important, since you can do it spontaneously without anything but your hands.
Just rub the suspected piece until it gets hot. You can rub it on jeans or other fabric if it hurts your hands. Then smell it. The best thing to do is do this with a known piece to get familiar with the smell. Getting it warm in any way will produce the smell, so running it under hot water, or a hair dryer will work, too.
As a sidenote: This test doesn’t work with my pieces because what you smell is the formula produced as the patina, which is an acid (not a scary, burning acid).
When buying on the internet, check the feedback! Every dealer I’ve encountered had at least one piece that was modern made. I’ll get to that later.
If possible, like buying a collection, use any metal polish or enzyme based cleaner on a Q-tip, or cloth in a tiny amount. It will turn dark yellow, as it rubs off some of the patina.
Don’t ever do the hot pin test, as no one wants a hole burned into their jewelry!
Also, you can get familiar with the weight and sound of Bakelite compared to other plastics. It is heavy and sounds more like wood, with a deeper tone, and better sustain in the resonance.
Any pitfalls to be wary of?
With buying internationally, as you mostly have to do, don’t be shy to ask questions from the seller. A reputable dealer will do the tests for you, and will have great feedback.
The one pitfall that is universal to be wary of is buying Taiwanese/ Indian made pieces. This is especially difficult because they will pass the tests.. at least at first. It is very difficult to describe them, so if you or any of your readers are suspicious, send me a picture, and i can tell you if it is one. They are chunky pieces with lots of good carving, but look very similar. They are usually about 20mm wide, and about 9mm thick.
I heard a rumour you might be coming to New Zealand in the future? Is this true?
Yes! My grandmother traveled the world and New Zealand was her favorite place. I also have friends there that I met at Burning Man and other places, and I love them.
There is an American legend of a man called Johnny Appleseed that walked across the United States sewing appleseeds, and I want to be Johnny Bakelite, travelling the world with suitcases of Bakelite, trading for places to stay, and being shown around!
Also, if the United States falls apart, I may look for a nice New Zealand girl to marry and move there!
What do you think of Jesse and his fantastic Bakelite skills? Any questions? Jesse is more than happy to answer any questions about what you read here.
Let me know in the comments.
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