Matt Burkholz is an expert on Bakelite, one of the most distinct and sought-after types of vintage jewelry. For the last 40 years, he’s seen and sold some of the rarest and most beautiful Bakelite pieces across the country. He joined the Jewelry Journey podcast to talk about Bakelite’s history, how it’s valued and why it takes a certain type of collector to appreciate it. Read the transcript below.
Sharon: Hello, everyone. Welcome to the Jewelry Journey podcast. Today, my guest is Matt Burkholz, the owner of the fine vintage, retro and couture costume jewelry store and online site, Route 66 West Palm Springs. Matt has been in the business for more than 40 years, starting a business in New York and then transplanting it to the West Coast. He’s the author of several books, including “The Bakelite Collection” and “Copper Art Jewelry: A Different Luster.” Say the word “Bakelite” and his name automatically comes up. Matt, welcome to the program.
Matt: Thanks, Sharon. Thanks for having me.
Sharon: So glad to have you. You’ve had an interesting jewelry journey in the vintage and couture costume jewelry spaces. Can you tell about how you got into it and what sparked your interest in jewelry?
Matt: I’m an art historian by training. I went to Vassar College in upstate New York. I was raised in New York City and Miami Beach, Florida, in a world with lots of glamorous restaurants and cocktail lounges and showrooms where you’d see great performances, and I always was fascinated by women’s beautiful jewelry, clothing, purses and accessories. My grandmother and grandfather, who were quite involved with raising me, were both lovers of fine jewelry, costume jewelry, all kinds of jewelry. So it just was in my DNA. I came to Bakelite jewelry particularly because I found it so beautifully visual. I discovered it in maybe 1980 in New York, as I was beginning my career in the antiques world and I was opening my first stores in SoHo. I fell in love with Bakelite first, before I evolved into general vintage costume jewelry and couture jewelry, so I think Bakelite was my opening door into the entire world.
Sharon: Interesting. When you went to college and studied art history, did you have any idea that you might be doing what you’re doing today?
Matt: No, except that I will add that at Vassar, there were many extravagant and exquisite women, professors and students. The people that came through an institution like that were always interesting. Since I was in the art history department, I had a professor who was quite a character, a well-known art historian and feminist who wore fabulous vintage clothing and interesting fashion. She was once wearing an Issey Miyake Japanese, sculptural, crazy tunic, a big, long-sleeved outfit, and she was also wearing like seven carved Bakelite bracelets, and as she’d gesture to what she was showing on the screen that we were studying, the bracelets would slide up and down her arm. She had mercurochrome-red, long hair; she was a feminist. It was 1972. It was a wild, crazy time of fashion change, and her look really impacted me.
Sharon: Wow! And I bet those bracelets made a really pleasant clicking noise.
Matt: Yeah, and that’s one of the things that most people who love Bakelite bracelets are very drawn to, that natural, coconutty clack as the bracelets hit one another. I tell women in my shop and it shows when they’re looking at jewelry. Some of the women are collectors, so of course they know that Bakelite is about synergy. One plus one plus one doesn’t equal three; it equals ten. The impact is multiplied, like the magnitude of an earthquake, the greater the number of bracelets. There is a limit. Most women like three, but the women who are just entering the world, they look at one and if they hear that sound and they’re repelled by it, I know that they’re really a one-shot deal and they’re going to just buy one bracelet, and it’s going to be just a thing they collect. But 99 out of 100 women love that sound.
Sharon: I’ll have to pay more attention. I never realized that the clicking of Bakelite is different from wearing multiple bracelets.
Matt: Oh yeah, one of the tests is the sound of Bakelite hitting Bakelite that helps you determine that. If you hit two Tupperware plastic lids together, that wouldn’t make a very wonderful sound, but if you click two pieces of Bakelite together, it sounds very natural, like two pieces of coconut shell hitting. It’s just a good, natural sound. It doesn’t sound anything like plastic, which is what it really truly is.
Sharon: What is Bakelite? How did it get its name?
Matt: Bakelite was invented by Dr. Leo Hendrik Baekeland, who had invented Velox paper, which was sold to the Polaroid Company. He was a chemist in New York in the Yonkers area in the early 20th century. After he made a lot of money, he became kind of a gentleman chemist in his home laboratory. It was the time of the beginning of the Model T and Model A Fords, which used rubber for tires. It was also a time of political change in the global political arena and car manufacturers were investing money in trying to find a chemical substitute for rubber. In case war broke out in the Philippines or Indonesia, they would still be able to have a material to use to make tires. Dr. Baekeland was engaged in that search when he accidentally discovered, while mixing a resin, that this material, instead of being rubbery and pliable and pliant like rubber is, became hard, more like ivory or bone or jet or cinnabar or a lot of other natural stone-like materials. Its original use was in electrical, and it had qualities that were industrial when it was first invented, but they soon invested more time and energy in figuring out ways to not just make it an industrial material, but to also make it beautifully colorful and workable, and that’s the baked material of Bakelite jewelry. The material on the edges of waffle irons or pancake makers or electrical plugs, that’s the brown Bakelite, which was what Dr. Baekeland invented in 1909. By 1929, a lot of evolution in the industry had occurred and they introduced the colorful, beautiful Bakelite that everybody loves. That’s Bakelite 201 versus Bakelite 101.
Sharon: Interesting, and was there one particular company making it?
Matt: Not at all, not at all. Bakelite is not for people that like labels, names and designers. It’s the opposite of that. There are very, very few particular names associated with it, like with designer costume jewelry, i.e., Miriam Haskell, Trifari, Kenneth J. Lane. There are only two names in the Bakelite world, and they’re both niche, specific little things that these people made. Most of the companies that made Bakelite jewelry have names like Acme, Apex, AA, USA. They were just factories, and they employed carvers, inlayers, laminators, but no names were ever associated with it. It’s not for that couture, name-driven client; it is for the client and person who loves modern art, industrial design, ethnographic design and creativity and intricacy and isn’t hung up on color, cut and carat.
Sharon: Because you’ve seen so much, I’m curious, can you ever look at piece and say, “Oh, this looks like it was made at this factory?”
Matt: No, never, ever that, but I can tell if it’s Bakelite just by eyeballing it 98 percent of the time, because I’ve been doing it for 40 years. Occasionally, I might have to employ one of the never-perfect, never-guaranteed tests that people always ask about, none of which are foolproof. The best test is using your nose and a little friction with your finger to warm what you’re testing and see if you get a chemical smell from the warmth and friction that you create. That’s the most reliable test, but again, not 100 percent foolproof or guaranteed. Use of the sound of the way it clicks together, the way it shines. It doesn’t have seams, so the biggest thing is if something has a seam in it, it’s not Bakelite. But a lot of things can get worked on and polished, and because Bakelite is so sought after, as far back as the 1980s, there were reproductions of it always emerging, changing, evolving and retreating. As a result, there are things that look like Bakelite in all the different levels of it, but I think what your listeners might want to know is that it’s not just the fact that something is Bakelite that makes it valuable and sought after. Just like anything else on the planet Earth, there’s common and cheap Bakelite, good, better, best, rare and museum-quality, super-expensive Bakelite. There’s cheap to treasure and everything in between. Trying to sum it up with one valuation or one description just doesn’t cut the mustard.
Sharon: Interesting, so what makes it a treasure?
Matt: Rarity, intricacy. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that a piece of jewelry that’s five colors laminated together is going to be more valuable than a piece that’s one color; one versus five, easy to understand. It also doesn’t take an expert to see that something that’s an inch wide with intricate, involved, dimensional, sculptural, high, carving is going to be more sought after and valued than something a quarter of an inch long with a slash here and a slash there carving. If you can use all the standards of connoisseurship you would use to look at any piece of jewelry, you use those same standards of connoisseurship when you look at Bakelite.
Sharon: Does any Bakelite exist out there that hasn’t already been found by a dealer?
Matt: I started my career in the early 80s and for the first 20 years of it, what would happen is in regions of the country, there’d be specialists like me that would suck up all the Bakelite from all the different antique shows and shops to acquire their stock for resale. In the Pacific Northwest, there was somebody, and there are also always collectors. In the beginning, the first collectors sucked it up, too, and they would interact with those dealers in their region who did that as well. Someone like me, I came from New York, then all of a sudden, boom, I was in Los Angeles. I’m from Miami, so I was also in Miami. I was working all over the country. Sometimes I’d bring things to California to sell that were more popular there and I’d buy things in California that were more expensive and sought after in New York. I tried to buy well in one place and sell well in another region. But when eBay happened in 1999, commerce on the planet Earth was inexorably altered and will never change. It never will really go back to the way it used to be.
What would happen is that Matt from New York would go to Los Angeles and do an antique show and buy a piece of jewelry from Ellen from Seattle, and Ellen bought it from Ms. Flanders who, when she was on a trip to Montana, was set up at a little church sale and then she brought it back to Seattle. It didn’t sell in her little shop, so she brought it to the show in L.A. and then I would buy it. Now, Ms. Flanders has an eBay seller name, Grandma’s Boards, so she’s selling stuff out of the attic. Instead of selling it to Ellen in Seattle and then to me in San Francisco visiting from New York, now she sells it to the nice lady on the Upper East Side on Fifth Avenue who is my client usually. In the days when eBay first started, all those middlemen got eliminated. Everybody started to sell everything. Of course, the dust has settled on online selling and we’ve got new methods of doing business 20 years into internet commerce, but it was a huge change, and that was about halfway through my career.
Sharon: Interesting. Yes, it definitely made a change. When it came out, was Bakelite popular?
Matt: Bakelite was popular in the 1930s. A lot of people have a misconstrued notion that all Bakelite was inexpensive and sold at the five and dime store for 10 cents. Like I said earlier, common, good, better, best, rare, museum quality, that goes for now and it goes for then, too. There was cheap stuff that was sold that wasn’t very desirable or very pretty. It’s just old today and that was cheap at the five and dime stores. The finest department stores and ladies’ boutiques sold the much more beautiful, more involved and much more expensive, even then. Bakelite’s not one thing, not one price, not one level of fabulousness; it’s just like anything else. It can be simple and some people like simple, little, thin bracelets, but the collecting world—even though some women like a .25-carat diamond, the world of diamonds says that four 10-carat emerald cuts are worth a lot more. The same thing goes for Bakelite.
Sharon: That’s true. I hadn’t really thought about that.
Matt: When you think about Bakelite, you literally have to take your fine jewelry hat off, your color, cut, carat, your pennyweight, your 14k, 18k, 24k brain and put that on the side and just think about design, intricacy, workmanship, style and fashion. Then, if you have some knowledge and experience, and you’ve read some books, and you’ve gone to an exhibition, and you’ve been to shops that are specialists and you’ve seen the range of material that’s offered, then you can shop with an educated brain and not be thinking about color, cut, carat, pennyweight, etc.
Sharon: That makes a lot of sense and you have to do that with a lot of jewelry today.
Matt: Oh, of course, like with costume jewelry. I sell fabulous vintage costume jewelry, Trifari, Eisenberg, Sherman, Shriner, all the top companies, and women who don’t put that fine jewelry brain to the side, it’s like they’re a computer having a meltdown when they’ve looked at the case, because they are thinking, “It’s real. It’s real. It’s so beautiful,” and then it’s also, “Oh, it’s not real. Real, not real. Real, not real.” Their brain goes back and forth, and when they then realize that it’s not real, they think, “Oh, why is this Trifari jelly belly pin $1,200 if it’s not real?” with their fine-jewelry brain. All of this, the whole world of vintage, couture costume jewelry, Bakelite, celluloid, acrylic, all of the standards, the visual and style and fashion and decorative history quality of vintage and fine are the same; it’s just the valuation that freaks with people’s heads. I have customers for all the Van Cleef, Bulgari, Tiffany, Cartier jewelry that you can shake a stick at. It’s the creative, enlightened, artistic, not formulaic, not label-driven kind of women who realize that Bakelite is—it’s for a more advanced mentality, who doesn’t need the pennyweight to ascribe a certain value to something.
Sharon: I’m sure there are a lot of women who would love to hear themselves described that way.
Matt: I will add that men love Bakelite as much or more than women, especially the objects made out of the material, like radios, cutlery, boxes, salt and pepper shakers, all kinds of things. My book, “The Bakelite Collection,” features a lot of that, and that’s what I collect in the Bakelite world because I’m not a woman. I don’t have a wife and I also have made my living from selling jewelry for 40 years. I’m kind of glad I don’t collect Bakelite jewelry because that would be like an alcoholic owning a liquor store. Many female dealers who do collect what they sell, they end up skimming the best 20 percent off for their own personal jewelry box. You’re envying what’s on their arm, but “Oh, I’m sorry. That’s not for sale.” My clients, because I don’t collect Bakelite jewelry, they get the benefit of every single thing that I buy for them, not for me.
Sharon: That’s a good point. What is interesting is that you do most of your business out of your store, as opposed to online sites.
Matt: Oh yeah, I had four different locations in New York City, downtown in SoHo. I’m from Miami Beach, so I had a location there for a period of time. I also had several locations in Columbia County, New York, which is near Hudson, New York, which is a big antique capital, very close to New York City. I’d go back and forth. I’ve had a gallery in Palm Springs. That doesn’t mean that I’m not technologically aware. I sell a great deal on Facebook. I know more people sell online on Instagram and, of course, I have my website, www.Route66WestPalmSprings.com, but when people ask me, it’s like basic math. Right now, I have 277 items on my website. I have 20,000 items in my store. Where do you think you’re going to get the better selection to choose from? It’s pretty simple and straightforward. When they go to a show—I used to do many, many shows—I would bring a small selection from many categories and I still would be only bringing like seven percent of the stock. When you have a shop and you’re an old-school antiques dealer like I am, you can do both. It’s a little harder. The people that get to stay home and be completely online dealers, sometimes they have better systems for storage and shipping that make it a little easier because that’s all they’re doing all the time. I’m balancing the shop, packing for shows, unpacking for shows, listing things to my website. I’m trying to balance all three things, but as a result, I have a global business and Palm Springs is a spectacular destination stop. My clients are from all over the world, even though I’m in this desert oasis 100 miles from Los Angeles.
Sharon: I’m sure that’s a good place to be. There are a lot of collectors who come out there, a lot of people of means.
Matt: People of means from all over the world. I’m also an architectural historian because of my art history training. I studied a lot of architecture and we’re a center for mid-century modern architecture. Bakelite comes a drop before mid-century modern, but it’s design-driven in the same way. There’s a lot of cross-pollination between the architecture world, which is one of the main spheres of artistic interest here, and all that 50s, 60s stuff always involves clothing, purses, jewelry. We have a big event here in Palm Springs both in October and February called Modernism Week. It brings in February close to 100,000 people to the city.
Sharon: I know. It’s a huge, huge thing.
Matt: It’s a huge thing. I lecture at it. I’m one of the guides on the double-decker buses. I do a huge antique show that’s one of the best and most fun antique shows in the country. There are fewer and fewer of them that are great and this one’s very fashion-forward, design-driven and there are all kinds of interesting jewelry. There’s a lot of wonderful mid-century modern studio silver jewelry. Of course, there’s always estate jewelry, which is a whole other field, and there are people that sell Chanel purses and all kinds of interesting things, and I’m one of them.
Sharon: I was at that show for the first time this past February. It was a lot of fun and a lot of unusual things that I hadn’t seen elsewhere.
Matt: It’s not like a standard antique show. You’re not going to find Americana and country things and anything that you find in your standard flea markets. It’s the tip top of the tip top in every modernism category. Bakelite is really a lifestyle thing, too. The women that love it, they love clothing. A lot of the biggest top clients, they wear really simple clothing. They don’t wear retro, rockabilly vintage 50s diner dresses, which only cost $2.99 at the thrift store, and then put like a $500 bracelet with it. They want to put a $2 bracelet with it. I have a bargain bag, I call it, of things that are $60 and under. I put things in there that I’ve had a long time, simple things that come in big collections that I buy and I’m happy to sell to people who look at the case and are drooling, but they can’t afford it. I bring the bargain bag out and people get their Bakelite sets, and it is kind of an addiction.
Back in the day, when I was one of those few regional dealers, I did have people who had to see me. They needed a fix of Bakelite and I provided it for them. I still work with a lot of those people. What’s really terrific is that I have been in the business so long that I started with certain women when they were 40 and now they’re approaching 80, so they don’t necessarily have the lifestyle anymore or daughters that they can give it to. So I frequently get back merchandise that I sold to women in the 80s and 90s in New York because I’m still connected; I’m still part of a global community of Bakelite mothers, collectors and dealers. At one point, really everybody knew one another.
Now in the internet world, when it’s global, it’s obviously not as intimate a community, but believe me, it still has lots of known persons, as you say. All you have to do is ask about Bakelite and my name and other names are going to be the first ones that come up, because I’ve spent my life growing this category, educating through books, articles, and blogs about the material. Bakelite always commands buzz. People are always interested in it. I can have all of the standard costume jewelry in the world, all of the Chanel, Yves St. Laurent and Miriam Haskell, and that will attract a lot of people and more people will understand it, because it looks like fine, regular, standard gold and precious metal and precious stone jewelry. But it won’t ever make people go cuckoo the way Bakelite does or captivate them and cloud their brain and make them obsessed and have to ask me about it and learn about it and talk about it. It’s an attention-grabbing material and the women who wear it know how to grab the visual spotlight. It’s not for the faint of heart. I will add, however, that a lot of Bakelite is extremely understated, elegant and tailored. It’s not all about Carmen Miranda with cherries on her head. It can be very simple. I can envision that art history professor that I described in that Issey Miyake black gauze with eight black carved bracelets. How dramatic, but how unlike Carmen Miranda. You get my drift?
Sharon: Absolutely, it’s a great way to describe it. Matt, thank you so much. I know I learned a lot and I will look at Bakelite in a different way. I’ve always loved it, but now I have much more of an appreciation.
Matt: Well, that’s my job.
Sharon: You did a good job today and thank you so much for being here.
Matt: You’re welcome.
Sharon: To everybody listening, we’ll have Matt’s contact information and website in the show notes at TheJewelryJourney.com. That wraps up another episode of the Jewelry Journey. If you like what you heard and you’d like to hear more, you can subscribe on iTunes or wherever you download your podcasts, and please rate us. We’ll be back next time with another thought-provoking guest giving us their professional take on the world of arts and jewelry. Thank you very much for listening.
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